The ACSM has made recommendations on how to design a flexibility program. However, before getting into the design, you should know your current flexibility status by assessing various joint’s ROM. Specifically, performing the sit- and-reach test will assess your hamstring and lower back flexibility while using a goniometer can be used to assess your ankles, knees, hips, neck and shoulders. Instructions on how to perform these assessments will follow later.
Once you learn where you are most and least flexible, you should make some realistic goals to improve or maintain your ROM. Be specific when you set goals. Instead of just saying, “I want to increase my flexibility,” you will want to state the specific area of the body you intend to improve. You will also want to make sure your goal can be measured. A better way to state your goal may be, ”I will improve my sit-and-reach score by 4 cm by the end of the semester.” Notice this goal, as stated, includes a specific area, is measurable, and includes a deadline. By stating your goal properly, you will increase the likelihood of actually achieving it.
Apply the FITT Principle
As mentioned previously, the ACSM has made recommendations for carrying out a flexibility program based on the FITT Principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type). As you select the areas you want to stretch, keep in mind it is recommended that multiple stretching exercises should be performed to target all major joints including the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, trunk, hips, knees, and ankles. (insert link to specific exercise here). After selecting your exercises, follow the below recommendations when performing your routine.
- Frequency-Stretch a minimum of 2-3 days per week, ideally 5-7 days per week.
- Intensity-Stretch to the point of tightness or mild discomfort.
- Time (or duration of each stretch)-a minimum of 10 seconds for very tight muscles with an emphasis to progress to 30-90 seconds. Two to four repetitions of each stretch should be done.
- Type (mode)-Select from either of the above techniques mentions that best suit your circumstances (Static, Dynamic, Ballistic, or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation).
When to Stretch
Although stretching can be done at any time of the day, the ACSM has traditionally recommended that flexibility training be incorporated into the warm up or cool down phase of an exercise session. Recent studies have provided evidence against stretching before exercise session suggesting that stretching will compromise the force- producing capabilities of muscles. Therefore, it is recommended that stretching take place only after the body temperature and of the muscles has increased, i.e. after the warm up or after the workout. Additional confirming evidence of this concept has shown that applying heat packs for 20 minutes to increase muscle temperature can increase hamstring flexibility more so than 30 seconds of static stretching. As you can see, temperature also plays a significant role in muscle ROM.
In addition to warming the muscle before performing stretching exercises, there are other things that can be done to make your flexibility routine safe. When muscles are stretched quickly and forcefully, the stretch reflex can be activated. This creates significant tension because the muscle fibers will not only be stretching but also attempting to contract. As mentioned, this is one of the reasons ballistic stretching may not be suitable for everyone. To avoid this, stretch slowly and in a controlled fashion while holding the stretch for 10 seconds or more.
In addition, some stretches are not recommended, or contraindicated. Researchers have determined that some stretching exercises may not be beneficial at all or may cause injury. A list of contraindicated stretches and alternative stretches can be found by clicking on the link below. However, this is not a comprehensive list of potentially risky stretches. It is important to understand personal limitations before or during a stretch exercise to avoid injury.