What is the best way to improve flexibility?
Stretching is generally accepted as the most common way to improve flexibility. Some people find stretching to be highly effective for improving flexibility, and some people find it to have little effect. Recent research has compared stretching (both static and dynamic) to eccentric training to compare which is more effective for flexibility.
A paper by Russell et al compared eccentric exercises vs static stretching for flexibility. Both forms of stretching appeared to give an increase in SHORT term flexibility with eccentric exercises showing a greater improvement in flexibility in the long term.
A systematic review (a review of all the literature on a particular topic) by Sullivan et al looked at the effects of eccentric training on flexibility and injury prevention and showed that eccentric training appears to increase fascicle length (muscle fiber length). This finding means that eccentric exercises physically change the length of the muscle by causing extra muscle fibres to grow. Not only does eccentric exercises improve flexibility, they also appear to improve strength and power at the same time.
So what is an eccentric contraction? It is a form of muscle contraction defined as a ‘lengthening contraction’ which occurs during all movement. Example: When throwing a ball, we ‘wind up’ the shoulder by pulling the arm back before we throw it forward, the pulling back of the arm is defined as the eccentric (lengthening) motion before throwing the ball. Similarly, when we walk or run, the strech of the achilles/calf before we push off the ground is defined as the eccentric component of walking/running. Check out some of our videos on eccentric training for hamstring flexibility here, hip flexor flexibility here achilles flexibility here.
Static stretching is important and feels great, however, for longer term improvements, eccentric training appears to provide better results for flexibility and injury prevention. In order to truly change our flexibility we must be practicing movement each day that ‘teach’ our muscles to move into the range we are trying to achieve. Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) is a principle which states that our body will adapt to the demands we impose on it. In the same way our muscles get bigger when we lift weights, they will also become more flexible when we apply adequate exercises which challenge our flexibility. Try set yourself the challenge of spending 5-10 minutes everyday for 1 month of practicing 1 specific movement. Video yourself the first time you do it, verses the last day you do it and see what the improvements.