Stretching and flexibility exercises to increase range of motion
It’s important that right from the beginning to work on strength exercises as your flexibility improves. Increasing your joints range of motion and flexibility without also improving the strength of the surrounding muscles can be an invitation for injury.
When you improve your flexibility to the point where an additional range of motion exists, the stretched muscles now have a reduced amount of overlap between the muscle fibers, resulting in a substantial reduction in strength. Strength exercises and flexibility programs should be done together to avoid this problem.
That Which Doesn’t Bend, Breaks!
Weight lifting is awesome when done properly. However, doing a limited range of movement (chopping your reps short of full extension) over a prolonged period of time can create shortened muscles. This is commonly seen with “ILS” and “MAS”. The “Invisible Lat Syndrome” and “Monkey Arm Syndrome” are where the person walks around like they are carrying a beer keg under each arm. Examples of shortened range of movement activities are partial barbell curls and bicycling-activities. In the later, the hip flexor can become shortened due to long periods where the hip flexors contracts repeatedly but does not fully elongate. Weight training exercises if continually performed in a shortened range of motion (without full extension or flexion), can make you vulnerable to injuries when outside the gym.
Chronically shortened muscles can be the first step in a series of events leading to injury. Shortened hip flexors, like mentioned above, can over time lead to a reduction of the normal lordotic curve of the lumbar spine, which can impair the spine’s load-bearing and shock absorption capacity. Over tight hamstrings have the same effect on the lumbar spine.
Over tight quadriceps on the other hand, can pull the knee cap upward, causing it to track abnormally high in its groove. This situation can result in a roughening of the underside of the knee cap (chrondromalacia patellae), leading to pain, inflammation, and eventually put you on your butt.
Do It Right and It Will All Work Out
Having said that, weight training exercises done properly over a full range of motion, can be beneficial to your flexibility levels. The two key points to remember are to perform your weight training exercises through the joint’s full range of motion, and to work opposite pairs (antagonistic) of muscles equally. In other words, do the same amount of work for the back as you do your chest. This will prevent muscle imbalances that would place undue stress on the joint that is between the two muscles. If you have rounded shoulders with shoulder or neck pain, take note. You probably work your chest more than your back and your Pec muscles are pulling your shoulder joint forward causing pain in the shoulders or tightness in the neck area.
When Being Cool. Isn’t
Body temperature is important when stretching. Increased temperature increases the flexibility of a joint, while being cold has the opposite effect. Think elastic band. If it’s cold, it snaps. Before performing stretching exercises, your body’s temperature must be elevated. The warm up can be passive, like a hot bath or sauna, or active, by doing a couple of light sets of the exercise you are about to do. The latter is preferred in the gym because most people take offense to people doing bench presses in only a towel.
Some people think that stretching IS the warm-up, but this is a mistake. Getting warm before stretching is important for two reasons. First, core body temperature is elevated. Second, muscles are subject to thixotropy (look it up if you want), which is the tendency for body fluids to become less “sticky” following a period of being shaken or otherwise disturbed by outside forces. Ever see sprinters shake their legs before running? Now you know why! When you don’t move for extended periods of time, you get stiff, turn to stone and die (just kidding, but you get the point). The best time to stretch is after training. The target muscles are warm and less “sticky”, and at this time research has shown that your stretching exercises will produce long term improvements in flexibility
Last point; don’t hold your breath when you stretch. Besides raising your blood pressure (that’s sure relaxing) you will be tense and unable to “sink” into the stretch. Proper breathing should enhance relaxation while stretching. Exhale with the elongation phase of the stretch and r-e-l-a-x.