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  • Writer's pictureMary Brooking

Flexibility - it's part of fitness. Get stretching!

Updated: Apr 11

Flexibility is the ability of a joint, or series of joints to move through a full range of motion. Along with endurance, strength and balance it’s a fundamental part of overall fitness. We help our joints maintain their flexibility by stretching, and strengthening them through their full range of motion.

Simple full body stretch routines often feel great and can provide a structure to keep our body mobile. They are a good way of including low-intensity movement into your day either on a standalone basis to build flexibility or as part of a warmup for a higher intensity activity.  

A stretching routine will ideally cater to your individual needs and goals but areas that often benefit from a focus are those that affect daily movements the most, like the hips, or those that don’t get mobilised often such as the thoracic spine.  A good guide to creating a routine for yourself is to include one or two stretches per major muscle group or region that is your focus eg hips, shoulders, legs but keeping the routine short helps make it easier to stay consistent.

Static vs dynamic stretching

Static and dynamic stretches are two types of stretches that vary mainly by the duration of the hold. Both can improve range of motion. Static stretches involve holding a muscle or joint position in one fixed position typically for 15 to 60 seconds. The muscle is gradually lengthened and held at its maximum comfortable tension. They are often better suited to beginners as they are simpler movements and after exercise. Examples are child’s pose and cobra.

Dynamic stretches involve controlled, repetitive movements that take a muscle or joint through its full, comfortable, range of motion holding for 1 to 2 seconds. They require co-ordination and can improve dynamic joint stability, neuromuscular control and muscular performance. They can be done as part of a dynamic warm up before exercise or with more of a focus on reaching end of range to train flexibility. An example is cat/cow.

How to start

  • Static stretches: 1-2 sets of 15-30s for each stretch

  • Dynamic stretches: 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps at 1-2 second hold at end range

  • Target major muscle groups and opt for simple stretches.

  • Get accustomed to the sensations and positions to learn body awareness. Pay attention to what you feel during and after the stretch as well as the following day.

  • Stretches can be pushed to slight discomfort but should not cause pain.

  • Perform at least 3 times a week, ideally as part of a bigger exercise routine.

  • As flexibility increases sensations will change and range of motion can be increased.

  • As you feel more comfortable gradually increase the intensity or duration to progress.

Simple tips to remember

  • Warm up before stretching to increase blood flow to muscles eg by going for a brisk walk

  • Choose stretch type relevant to your movement goals

  • Start gently, gradually increasing the intensity & duration of stretches

  • Strengthen muscles too by building in strength training sessions alongside stretching, targeted at muscles relevant to your goals

  • Be consistent: perform 3 to 5 days a week

  • Modify by reducing range of motion if you experience discomfort and seek guidance if needed.

Example full body routine

Sciatic nerve glide (dynamic)

Limited sciatic nerve mobility may contribute to discomfort in the back of the thigh or leg. One way to mobilize this nerve is to flex the hip, extend the knee and move the ankle up and down.

Begin lying on your back on the floor and bring your left leg up with both hands holding the back of your knee. Stop when you feel a slight stretch in the back of the leg. You can use a strap to hold your leg if this is easier. Flex the left foot and toes towards the head to increase the stretch in the nerve. Point toes upwards to decrease the stretch in the nerve. Repeat for target number of reps, then switch legs and repeat on other side.

Happy Baby pose (static)

This gentle pose stretches the hips and ankles, relaxes the pelvic floor and can reduce tension in lower back and hips. If holding the feet is challenging hold the ankles or shins instead. Rocking from side to side is optional but can provide additional relaxation.

Begin lying on your back on the floor. Bring in your knees towards your chest and grasp the outside of your feet. Flex each foot into your hands as you extend the knees into a stretch and breathe into the belly. The soles of your feet will now be facing the ceiling. Gently rock from side to side while maintaining the stretch in each leg for your target hold period.

Standing hip flexor stretch (static)

This is great for stretching the front of the hip and is a good alternative to the more common kneeling hip flexor stretch. Be mindful of any discomfort deep in the hip, modify by not moving the stance leg into as much extension. Achieving the stretch without a large change in joint position, though the pelvic tuck, is a safer option for those with any hip injuries.

Begin in a split stance with your right leg forward and slightly bent. Keep your left leg back and straight. Tuck the tailbone slightly and shift your body weight to the front leg while reaching upwards with the left arm. At the same time bring the right arm across the hips. Hold the stretch for your target time period and then return to the starting position.

Standing thoracic rotation (dynamic)

Mobility of the thorax can reduce excessive load or stress in neighbouring regions like the shoulder or neck. This chest-opening movement is an excellent exercise to target these regions as well as the back.

Stand tall with your feet hip width apart and your spine and pelvis in a neutral position. Raise both arms up to shoulder height with your shoulders relaxed and your palms facing each other. Exhale to open your left arm out towards the left and behind you as far as you can, rotating your spine and head at the same time. Keep the right arm lengthened and still. Inhale as you return back to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side and continue alternating sides.

Cobra (static)

This popular yoga pose helps stretch the abdominals and hip flexors and promotes mobility into spinal extension. If this causes discomfort in the back or shoulders don’t push up too high.

Lie face down on the floor with your legs slightly wider than hip width apart. `Rest your forehead on the floor, lengthening your neck and tucking the chin slightly. Place your arms out to the side with your elbows bent to 90 degrees, your forearms flat on the floor and your palms down. Inhale and gently tuck your tailbone under to begin. Inhale and press up from the floor by extending the elbows as far as comfortable to lift the ribcage off the floor while the pelvis stays in contact. Keep the core slightly engaged, tailbone tucked and glutes squeezed to avoid over-exctending the lower back. Hold for the desired length of time, with controlled breathing. Exhale and bend the elbows as you lower the belly, ribcage, chest and forehead back to the floor to resume the starting position. 

Child’s pose (with lateral variation) (static)

This restorative stretch relaxes the back and pelvis and stretches out the arms and ankles. The gentle spinal flexion can help with tension relief, especially around the lower back. Add a lateral variation to target the sides of the back. Stay within a comfortable range and don’t push your limits. Relax into the stretch using your breath.

Begin in a four point kneeling position with your shoulders above your wrists, hip above your knees and your head and neck in line. Keep your spine neutral. Slowly sit back on your heels and stretch your arms out in front of you, palms on the floor. Let your torso sink between your legs in a fold and relax your shoulders and back as you exhale. Aim to let your forehead touch the floor. Optional: walk hands to one side of the body, keeping them stretched out in front of you, then the other side. Hold for target length of time, return to starting position.

Cat Cow (dynamic)

This is a great stretch to enhance spinal mobility. The movement between spinal flexion and spinal extension mobilises the spine and engages the abdominal and chest muscles. It’s a perfect exercise to reduce joint stiffness. 

Begin in a four point kneeling position with your shoulders above your wrists, hip above your knees and your head and neck in line. Keep your spine neutral. Exhale as you round the spine up towards the ceiling, pushing the shoulder blades around the ribs and tucking the head down towards the chest. Tilt your pelvis downwards. Inhale and let your belly sink towards the floor, raising your head and neck and curving your spine downwards simultaneously. Attempt to extend and move through the whole spine in one fluid motion. Repeat for the target number of reps. 

Reference: Science of Stretch. Reach your flexible potential, Stay active, Maximise mobility. Dr Leada Malek

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