The ability of the joints and muscles to move through their full potential range of motion is essential for easing the performance of everyday tasks. We need flexibility in our shoulder joint to reach above our head and change a light bulb, or to reach for an object on a highshelf. We need flexibility in our hip joint to climb stairs, and take long strides when walking. If we are flexible we can swim/move more efficiently.
In addition, flexible joints and muscles will contribute to the maintenance of correct posture and joint alignment. Improved posture can potentially enhance our physical appearance. Indeed, standing tall and upright can have a slimming effect on most body frames. Therefore, being sufficiently flexible will allow us to swim with greater ease, and with greater poise.
Conversely, a lack of flexibility will cause our bodies to become stiff and immobile. We will be less able to reach up to a high shelf, and less able to bend down and tie our shoe laces. This can restrict the everyday movements we are able to perform, and make us less self-sufficient. In addition, swimming with incorrect technique and joint alignment will potentially create muscle imbalance, and possibly increase our risk of injury. Therefore, being flexible is of paramount importance not only for swimming but for improving the quality and economy of our movements in everyday life.
Being sufficiently flexible will contributes very much to the enhancement of our swimming performance. If we are not sufficiently flexible, we are more susceptible to injury, especially when we are swimming, when we are performing movements that require us to move quickly into extended positions, reaching up and away, and twisting, rotating.
Some sporting activities require much more flexibility that we need to perform our daily tasks. In particular, some of the martial arts and dance activities require excessive flexibility. These activities can lead to us having too much flexibility. If we are too flexible, and the muscles and ligaments around the joint stable, we are also promoting greater risk of injury.
Ultimately, we need the right amount of flexibility to perform our everyday tasks, and maintain correct alignment. However, if we participate in sporting activities, such as swimming we require a little extra flexibility. A competitive swimmers will need greater flexibility to assist with the achievement of their goals. However, if we swim for recreational purposes, it is arguable whether we should push ourselves so far. The key issues is to decide our reasons for participating, and our individual aims. ideally, we should ensure that we are flexible enough to meet the demands placed on our body, without placing our bodies at risk from injury.
SUMMARY OF THE LONG-TERM BENEFITS OF FLEXIBILITY
- Improved range of motion in the joints
- Improved posture and joint alignment
- Potential for enhanced swimming technique
- Reduced tension in the muscles
- Reduced risk of injury when moving into extended positions.
How can we improve flexibility?
Flexibility can be maintained by the frequent (daily) performance of activities that require our muscles and joint to move through their full range of motion. Since most sedentary lifestyles do not naturally provide this opportunity, stretching activities are incorporated into most swimming Programs.
Stretching activities are those which require the two ends of the muscle, the origin and insertion, to move further apart. This causes the muscle to lengthen, and will potentially increase the range of motion at the joint. However, the muscle must also be allowed to relax to achieve an effective stretch.
Static stretch positions are generally advocated as safer for most individuals in land-based exercise sessions. Static stretches require comfortable supportive positions to be adopted and held still for and appropriate duration . The aim is to enable the tension initially felt in the muscle (the stretch reflex) to dissipated (de-sensitisation) and allow the muscle to relax and move more safely to an extended range of movement . However, if we move too quickly or too far into the stretch reflex may not occur. It is therefore essential that we listen carefully to our body and move only to the point of a mild, initial discomfort. A disadvantage of performing these stretches in water is that the body will cool down quickly, and muscles should be warm to stretch.
Active stretching is where the opposite muscle contracts to bring about a stretch of the other muscle pair. For example contracting the hip flexor to raise the knee upwards would be an active stretch of the gluteals. The disadvantage of active stretching is that the positions are sometimes less relaxing. In the example described, the hip flexor would work statically (isometric) to hold the position; over a period of time this would increase tension in the hip flexor muscle, reduce oxygen delivered to the muscle, and potentially contribute to lactic acid building up the muscle (hip flexor). The stretch would need to be released to removed these effects.
Passive stretching is where both the prime mover/agonist and antagonist relax. This is achieved by supporting the stretch position. Passive stretching potentially enables more relaxation. For example: to stretch the gluteals, raise the knee in front of the body and hold with the hands. This enables the hip flexor to relax, so both muscles can relax. The stretch position can usually be maintained for longer.
Ballistic stretching movements are discouraged. They are those that require the body to move too quickly into extended range of motion. The tend to maintain activity of the stretch reflex and prevent de-sensitisation occurring. In addition, the momentum produced may potentially cause the range of motion to be exceeded and create a risk of muscle tearing and damage to the ligaments and other tissues that surround the joint. In the long term such activities may reduce stability of the joints, creating hyper-mobility. They may cause irreparable damage to the muscles and joints, which may restric range of motion and decrease flexibility.
Another method of stretching, that is sometimes recommended (particularly for water-based programs) is dynamic or range of motion stretching. Dynamic stretching occurs when the joints and muscles move through the full range of motion but there is no specific static holding phase. The movement into and out of the extended range is continued for a specific number of repetitions. These stretches can be performed fairly safely in water because the resistance of the water prevents the speed of movement becoming ballistic in nature.
The recommended training requirement for improving flexibility
2-3 times per week minimum. 5-7 times per week is ideal.
NB: the muscles must be warm prior to stretching to prevent muscle tearing and promote range of motion
Positions that promote the feeling of mild tension/tightness 9not pain) in the belly of the muscle at the end of the range of movement.
2-4 repetitions of each stretch can be performed.
Static stretching – 15- 30 seconds hold.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching – 6 secon contract followed by 10 -3 aecond assisted stretch.
Static or PNF techniques for all major muscle groups
Slow and controlled performance progressing to greater ranges of movement. It is also essential to give consideration to the specific flexibility needs of the individuals (current flexibility levels and flexibility needs for their specific swimming activity)
Exercise in water considerations
PNF streching is not appropriate for water-based sessions and the water temperature would need to be very warm for the inclusion of a lot of static stretching.
It is recommended that dynamic range of motion stretches are used for water-based programs
How can we cater for different levels of flexibility?
Less flexible participants will generally need to work through a smaller range of motion. It is much easier to control their range of motion by using static stretches. However, body temperature needs to be monitored! Static stretches will assist with preventing them exceeding a safe range of motion. They should only move into a stretch position to a point where they feel a mild tension. This may require some stretch positions to be adapted so they are able to stay within a comfortable range. If dynamic/range of motion/moving stretches are used with the less skilled or flexible, they should be advised only to move to a point they feel comfortable. Their movements throughout the main workout will also need to be slightly smaller and perhaps slower. It may be necessary for them to perform movement with shorter levers and smaller range of motion to prevent them from overstretching.
More flexible participants should be able to move quite safely through a larger range of motion. They should be encouraged to use longer levers and fully extend (straighten) their joints, without locking them (hyper-extending), to move to their full potential. Potentially, the majority of their stretches can be dynamic/range of motion, provided the participants have sufficient body awareness and muscular control of their movements.