Improving flexibility is an essential part of any training or sporting activity and in fact, working on flexibility and supple musculature can itself be the foundation of a fit, healthy and toned body, people who regularly follow yoga and pilates often have toned in shape bodies. Stretching can increase our capacity for strength and fitness, and is even said to be a factor in extending lifespan (ref: Mark Stibich, Ph.D). Quite a claim, but when you consider what being flexible can allow you to achieve in fitness terms, it’s easy to see how that claim might be true. 

The importance of Stretching and warming up

It's essential that stretching should be part of any training programme you follow, your stretching should include both warming up and down before and after exercise. Having an appropriate warm up/down routine can enhance what is achieved during the exercise, and will help avoid injury, stretching helps facilitate blood flow into the muscles which in turn makes for a more productive work out.

Warm up before your first stretch

Importantly always remember to gently warm up before stretching, trying to stretch cold muscles and joints can easily result in an injury, strain or sprain stretching is best done when your muscles are warm and more supple to start with. A simple 5 minute brisk walk or short easy session on a cross trainer can be enough to warm up the muscles before stretching.

Try Yoga

The most obvious example of what can be achieved through flexibility and stretching is yoga. Yoga practitioners are often fit, slender, toned - and often long lived! Yoga is useful to take from in terms of stretching tips, as it uses held positions to extend and stretch muscles, creating heat and a rush of blood when the pose is released. Some even claim that the elevated heart rate associated with this rush makes yoga qualify as an aerobic exercise. (see yoga and pilates section link).

Incorporating a regular stretching program into your exercise routine will:

Reduce the risk of an injury or strain 
Decrease pain and muscle soreness after exercise 
Improve your circulation 
Improve your range of motion 
Improve your posture 
Decrease muscle tension 
Improve your ability to relax 
Allow time for mental training, such as visualisation and motivation

Stretch to flex

Regular stretching is the most obvious way to improve flexibility. Given that the definition of flexibility refers to the absolute range of movement in the joints, it’s a good idea to work out where limits are so that making small improvements does not cause damage as joint and ligament strains can be painful, long lasting and hamper other fitness efforts. In other words little by little, and try not to overstretch!

Flexibility can vary enormously from individual to individual, and is affected by many factors including age, gender, genetics, temperature even time of day. Find out what works for you, but as a general rule never try to stretch from a cold start, always gently warm up and get the blood flowing first.