Flexibility | Sports Medicine | UC Davis Health


What is flexibility?

Flexibility is the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain free range of motion. Although flexibility varies widely from person to person, minimum ranges are necessary for maintaining joint and total body health. Many variables affect the loss of normal joint flexibility including injury, inactivity or a lack of stretching. The range of motion will be influenced by the mobility of the soft tissues that surround the joint. These soft tissues include: muscles, ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and skin. A lack of stretching, especially when combined with activity can lead to a fatigue induced soft tissue shortening over time.

Group of people on green grass stretching.
Elderly woman in her living room working out with weights.

Inadequate flexibility will have a negative effect on the body in 3 significant ways:

  1. Joints require movement through a full range of motion to maintain the health of cartilage and other structures within the joint with increased blood supply and nutrients to joint structures with increased quantity of synovial joint fluid (oil in the crank case). This effect can be particularly noticeable in weight bearing joints such as the hips and knees.
  2. Muscles that are inflexible tire more quickly, causing opposing muscle groups to work harder. Muscle fatigue can lead to muscular injuries and the inability of the muscles to protect joints from more severe injuries. For example, the hamstrings play a role in stabilizing the knee and preventing ACL tears.
  3. Decreased flexibility may also lead to abnormal stress on structures and tissues distant from the initial site of inflexibility. One example of this is that tendonitis in the knee can be related to calf tightness.

Additional benefits of a regular stretching routine:

The range of motion of a joint is often measured with devices such as a goniometer or inclinometer. These devices allow range of motion to be measured in degrees and then compared to accepted normal values. Flexibility can also be measured with functional tests. These tests allow the measurement of joint range of motion within the context of common patterns of movement. Using range of motion testing, areas of inflexibility can be identified and addressed.

  • Increased neuromuscular coordination
  • Return of muscle to natural resting state
  • Modifying blood pooling, recirculation

Typical areas of assessment include hamstrings, lower back, iliotibial band (IT band) and hip. In order to realize the benefits of stretching, a regular stretching routine must be incorporated into your normal training program. Also, it is important to remember that gaining flexibility takes time and dedication. It may take several weeks of consistent, daily stretching to notice improvement. Stretch after each training session with stretches that will target the largest joints in your body. Stretching for a continuous amount of time (20+ minutes), not just after each training session several times per week, can also be very beneficial. Once these have been performed, move on to stretches that will more specifically address your areas of inflexibility. There are an unlimited number of stretches that can be performed to address all of the body’s joints, but there are specific guidelines that should be followed for all stretches:

  • Maintain the stretch position for 30 seconds to begin but 1-2 minutes is ideal. Stretching should be completed statically. Static stretching calls for gradually stretching through a muscle’s full range of motion until you feel resistance or mild discomfort. Gradually release the stretch
  • Repeat Frequency: Daily

A stretching routine should cover all the major muscle groups of the body as well as any specific muscle groups that are being utilized in a sport or activity. The movement of other areas of the body, other than the muscle group being stretched, should be minimized. Maintain a regular breathing pattern when stretching. Stretching will not head off delayed-onset muscle soreness - the kind that generally occurs the day after unaccustomed The debate as to when to perform a stretching routine is controversial. It is generally agreed upon that stretching at the end of an exercise session will greatly benefit you. Stretching before an exercise session though is generally not recommended unless it is preceded by a 5-minute cardiovascular warm-up. Warming up before stretching increases the blood flow and temperature of the muscles, ligaments and tendons, improving the elasticity and optimal functioning of the muscles and connective tissue. Stretching when muscles are cold could lead to a strain or pull. Begin each stretch slowly and gently – Stretch to the point of tightness and then just beyond. You should feel pulling or tightness, but not pain. Stay relaxed and do not bounce.

Stretching is most often thought of as a way to loosen muscles, but it is also effective in increasing the mobility of all soft tissues that restrict flexibility. Stretching will not head off delayed-onset muscle soreness - the kind that generally occurs the day after unaccustomed strenuous exercise.

8 benefits of a regular stretching routine:

  1. Enhanced performance
  2. Decreased risk of injury
  3. Increased blood supply and nutrients to joint structures
  4. Increased quantity of synovial joint fluid (oil in the crank case)
  5. Increased neuromuscular coordination
  6. Reduced muscular tightness and increased joint mobility
  7. Return of muscle to natural resting state
  8. Modifying blood pooling, re-circulation