Flexibility training is perhaps the most undervalued component of conditioning. While recent and ongoing debate questions its role in injury prevention, athletes can still gain much from a stretching regime.
From a volleyball spike to a rugby drop kick, flexibility of the body's muscles and joints play an integral part in many athletic movements.
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In general terms, flexibility has been defined as the range of motion about a joint and its surrounding muscles during a passive movement. Passive in this context simple means no active muscle involvement is required to hold the stretch. Instead gravity or a partner provides the force for the stretch. By increasing this joint range of motion, performance may be enhanced and the risk of injury reduced.
The rationale for this is that a limb can move further before an injury occurs. Tight neck muscles for example, may restrict how far you can turn your head. If, during a tackle, your head is forced beyond this range of movement it places strain on the neck muscles and tendons. Ironically, static stretching just prior an event may actually be detrimental to performance and offer no protection from injury. The emphasis is on "may" however, as a closer examination of the scientific literature shows that effects are often minimal and by no means conclusive.
Muscle tightness, which has been associated with an increased risk of muscle tears, can be reduced before training or competing with dynamic stretching. For this reason many coaches now favor dynamic stretches over static stretches as part of the warm up. Competitive sport can have quite an unbalancing effect on the body.
Take racket sports for example. The same arm is used to hit thousands of shots over and over again. One side of the body is placed under different types and levels of stress compared to the other. The same is true for sports like soccer and Australian rules football where one kicking foot usually predominates. A flexibility training program can help to correct these disparities preventing chronic, over-use injury. Of course, a more flexible athlete is a more mobile athlete. It allows enhanced movement around the court or field with greater ease and dexterity.
Some other benefits may include an increase in body awareness and a promotion of relaxation in the muscle groups stretched - both of which may have positive implications for skill acquisition and performance.