Working out to stay fit isn't just important for people whose profession is linked to the world of fitness; it has become a necessity among people who lead stressful lives, eat processed foods and get by on less sleep, too.

However, a host of these workouts - whether it is more traditional forms of exercise like long-distance running, cycling and weight training like kettlebell workouts or newer workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Crossfit - can leave you with muscle ache and pains for the rest of the day. 

Add to this the fact that many of us skip (or rush through) what we consider to be the less important segments of the workout - such as, warming up, joint mobility exercises, stretching and using the foam roller after a workout - it is no wonder that our flexibility suffers.

While our workouts are designed to burn a lot of calories, the specific movements leave the body stiff and less flexible than before. The fix: move around throughout the day, not just while working out. Warm-up exercises and stretching movements have their benefits, but so do some exercises you can perform for overall flexibility, even if you have skipped a day of gym. Read on to know about them.

  1. Why is flexibility important?
  2. Ways to increase flexibility
  3. Flexibility exercises
  4. Takeaways for flexibility exercises

Just like cardiovascular activities improve heart and lung function, and strength-training boosts the body’s metabolism while strengthening the joints, muscles and ligaments, flexibility has its own set of benefits as well.

  • Warming up before starting more intense exercises is integral to keeping the muscles in good shape and prevent workout injuries.
  • Stretching exercises after running or working out help prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and leave you feeling great.
  • If you are flexible, the muscles in your body stay supple as well as strong enough to perform more intense, repetitive movements over a long period of time.
  • Flexibility exercises ensure that muscles have the potential to grow with strength training and cardiovascular exercises and remain in good health with age.

Here's what happens in the body when you omit flexibility exercises like stretching or when you assume bad posture (example, hunched over shoulder) for most of the day: the muscles become shortened, reducing flexibility. This can become worse as you grow older.

Flexibility exercises can be of varying types but can all be beneficial for a person’s overall physical health. Here are a few examples:

  • Dynamic stretching: As opposed to static stretching (postures that you hold for a few seconds to stretch a particular muscle group), dynamic stretching involves remaining in constant motion while stretching the muscles. These movements prep the muscles to perform more rigorous tasks as you go along. Examples include moving from side to side and forward lunges.
  • Yoga: One of the benefits of yoga, irrespective of whether you practise Hatha yoga, Vinyasa, Ashtanga yoga or Iyengar yoga, is great flexibility.
  • Dance fitness: Dance fitness is first and foremost a cardiovascular activity - it strengthens the lungs and the heart. In addition to this, various dance forms also encourage the use of the entire body, freeing up stiff muscles and adding a degree of flexibility in a person. Dance forms like Zumba, Bokwa fitness and Bollywood dancing are excellent examples of dance fitness routines to boost flexibility.
  • Massage: It is extremely important to include massage therapy into your hectic schedule. Especially if you spend long hours sitting in front of a desk and an hour or two exercising on most days of the week. Stiff muscles need regular stimulation and massage helps in relaxing and loosening them up. Massaging the body every two weeks is a good way to keep them healthy and ready for more intense exercise.
  • Hydration: Dehydration is a leading cause of muscle cramps. It can even causing tiredness in the muscles during an intense workout or while running. It is important to drink water during the workout, of course, but equally important is staying hydrated throughout the day. Failing this, our muscles can become stiff.

A combination of the following exercises can be great for opening up the muscles of the body and help you perform more intense exercises better. Even as standalone exercises, these flexibility movements ensure that your muscles stay in good shape. These exercises can be done within 15-20 minutes.

As a routine, flexibility exercises can be performed for the lower body first, followed by movements focused on the upper half of the body.

Lower body flexibility

Here are a collection of movements to enhance flexibility in your lower body:

Hamstring stretches

1. Forward bend

  • Stand straight with your feet together.
  • Bend down to touch your toes while keeping the knees.
  • If this movement is easy for you, try to bring your chest closer to your knees.
  • Hold for about 20 seconds

2. Downward facing dog pose

This yoga pose is another excellent movement to work the hamstrings.

  • Get into the forward bend position, as described above.
  • "Walk" your hands forward to make an inverted V with your body.
  • Hold for about 20 seconds.

More advanced practitioners can also try walking lunges.

Calf stretches

Standing calf stretch 1

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Now take the right foot forward, placing the heel of the right foot on the mat. The toes should be pointed up towards the ceiling.
  • Bend down to hold the toes of your right foot with your right hand.
  • Hold for 20 seconds, then repeat on the left side.

Standing calf stretch 2

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Take one leg forward, as you would in a lunge.
  • Bend the knee of the forward leg while keeping the back leg straight.
  • Make sure both heels are planted firmly on the ground.

Knee to chest stretch

An excellent movement to work the lower back muscles.

  • Lie down flat on a mat and pulling one knee up to the chest with your hands to stretch the glutes as well as the hamstrings.
  • Hold for 20 seconds, then switch legs.

Hip flexor stretch

Although there are multiple variations of this, try this simple version:

  • Lie down on your back on a mat. Bend your knees and place your feet on the mat.
  • Now, fold the right leg over the left knee. Lift your legs in this position and bring them closer to the chest.
  • Interlock the fingers of both hands behind your left thigh by passing the right hand in-between your legs and taking your left hand from the outer part of the left thigh.
  • Pull your legs closer to your chest and hold for 20 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Upper body flexibility exercises

A set of low-intensity movements can help relax and free up muscles in the upper body, and can be performed after finishing the routine for the lower half:

Cross-body shoulder stretch

  • Keep the arms straight
  • Take the left arm across to the right side.
  • Bend your right arm to place the right forearm on the left arm.
  • Hold for a few seconds to unlock the shoulder joints.
  • Once done, repeat with the other arm.

Neck stretch

It may seem gentle but sitting down, keeping the back straight and moving the neck from side to side in an attempt to touch the ears to the shoulders is an excellent way to mobilize and stretch the muscles in the neck.

Doorway chest stretch

  • Stand next to a wall or a door
  • Place one hand on the wall at about head height and attempt to extend upper body ahead without moving the feet.
  • The resistance created by the hand on the wall is a great way to stretch the pectoral muscles in the chest.

Triceps stretch

  • Lift both the arms above the head
  • Bend one elbow backwards to touch the back of the neck
  • Stretch that elbow with the other hand to engage the tricep muscles of the upper arms, freeing them for more intense activities ahead.

Flexibility is essential for the body to avoid injury. It prevents your muscles from tensing up due to cramps, as stiff muscles can lead to running injuries or workout injuries in the future. Along with stretching and strengthening of the muscles, it is important for the body to have flexibility as it allows for freer movement of the body as you age.

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References

  1. National Health Service [Internet]. UK; How to improve your strength and flexibility
  2. Stathokostas, Liza et al. Flexibility Training and Functional Ability in Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Journal of Aging Research. 2012 Nov; 2012(306818).
  3. Petric, Maja et al. The Impact of Hatha Yoga Practice on Flexibility: A Pilot Study. Alternative & Integrated Medicine. 2014 Apr; 3(2):160.
  4. Fowler, BD et al. Effects of Whole-Body Vibration on Flexibility and Stiffness: A Literature Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2019; 12(3): 735–747. PMID: 31156749.
  5. Knudson, DV et al. Current Issues in Flexibility Fitness President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest. 2000 Jun; 3(10).
  6. Valentim-Silva, JR et al. High-Intensity Exercise and Flexibility of the Lower Limbs: Dose-Effect Study. Rev Bras Med Esporte. 2016 Jul-Aug; 22(4).
  7. PennState Kinesiology: The Pennsylvania State University [Internet]; The Importance of Flexibility and Mobility
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