For most people, their feelings on stretching are black and white, they either love it or they hate it. Those that love it gravitate toward yoga classes or the stretching mat at the gym whenever indecision happens during a workout, as their fall back plan. Those that hate it often seem to find a way to skip it before or after a workout, always having time for an extra set or an extra mile, but never having quite enough time to stretch.
While those that hate to stretch are often chastised and scolded about the importance of stretching in a balanced workout plan, those that overstretch are not doing themselves any favors either. It’s all about finding a balance between strength and length, or flexibility and stability.
Flexibility is defined as the available range of motion across a particular joint, or how far you can move without restriction, be that restriction within the muscle fibers themselves or at the joint due to tendon issue or inflammation. Each joint has a prescribed range of motion in each direction, and in those people that are hyper-flexible, they may far surpass the normal range. Others with mobility restrictions may not be able to use the full normal range of motion. For optimum performance at most activities, aiming to match, but not exceed normal range of motion is a good goal. Normal range of motion for each joint can be found here.
Flexibility is a part of mobility, but it’s not the whole story. Mobility is the ability to preform a desired movement without restriction, but flexibility does not necessarily need to the cause of low mobility. Perhaps you cannot perform a full squat because you lack the strength, coordinator or balance to complete the movement. While this is not necessarily a lack of flexibility, it is a lack of mobility.
Once you have the flexibility and mobility to preform a movement, you’ll also need the stability to preform that movement in a controlled manner. This is where the balance between flexibility and muscle strength and tone come into play. While orthopedic joint issues such as ligament tears can impact stability, those stability issues are a separate issue and to be worked out with a doctor or physical therapist. The stability you can impact in your own workout is by making sure that whatever flexibility and mobility work you have done, you have enough strength and control to hold the movement.
While low flexibility and high stability may be easy to visualize by picturing someone with extreme muscle development that lacks the ability to reach their toes or turn their head fully, low stability and high flexibility is harder to diagnose because flexibility is often valued as a goal in itself. However, imagine someone who has invested a significant amount of time in hip opening stretches and long deep lunges, that now cannot successfully lunge under weight without the laxity of their psoas giving out, or cannot preform a full squat without their knees kicking out due to adductor laxity.
Exercises to Find Balance
Exercises that help strike a balance between mobility and stability are those that emphasize strengthening a muscle while using it’s length and dynamically stretching while working the fibers.
Walking Lunges with a Deep Stretch
These require a deep stretch of the hip flexors as you pause at the end of the motion, allowing the knee to contact the ground and then resting into the stretch before slowly coming up to a standing position (with hands held overhead throughout the motion). Hip flexors are taken to the fullest of extend of their range of motion, and then gently challenged and engaged to bring the body back to standing.
In the plank position, allow your chest to fall toward the ground without bending your elbows or relaxing your strong abdominal engagement. The shoulder blades slide toward each other, and once they’ve reached their passive range of motion toward the spine, the upper back is engaged to pull them ideally to within an inch of touching each other, stretching the pecks and serratus and working the rhomboids. The motion is then reversed and the serratus and pecks are engaged as the shoulder blades slide apart and actively push the chest away from the floor until a stretch is felt in the rhomboids and upper back.
Both exercises above take muscles through their full range of motion to a stretch before recruiting them again into contraction and strengthening them across their full range, enhancing both flexibility and stability, and helping ensure functional mobility throughout the motion.