Focus: To learn the latest flexibility training research and use it to design a flexibility training program.
What You'll Learn In this section of the course, we are going to look at how to incorporate various stretches and drills into an exercise program to improve flexibility and mobility.
Why is This Important? Incorporating flexibility and mobility into your client’s training program will allow them to achieve greater ranges of motion, resulting in increased strength and stability. Client injuries can be decreased, their posture and balance can be improved and their physical performance improve. Making sure your client doesn’t get injured means they will be much more likely to achieve their goals and continue training with you.
Definition, Differentiation, & Benefits
Most people use the term flexibility and mobility interchangeably. However, they are two relatively different concepts. Flexibility can be defined as the ability of the muscles to shorten. In other words, good flexibility means your muscles are able to temporarily stretch when needed. Mobility, on the other hand, is the ability for the body to go through a full range of motion without losing control. For example, your shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint that should be able to move in all directions. However, if you can’t press overhead, you may have a mobility issue that can lead to injury and decreased performance.
Good mobility is extremely important for your client to reach their goals. In order to achieve good mobility, good flexibility is also of great importance. That being said, good flexibility isn’t necessarily a good indication of good mobility. A person might be able to touch their toes, but their squat range might not match up. Unfortunately, many people are introduced into mobility and flexibility as a reactive approach, rather than a proactive approach.
The most important thing is to look at your client’s goals and any problem areas that you have already discovered during the initial assessment. You are then able to incorporate the necessary stretches and movements into an exercise program from the get-go.
Types of Strength Training
After you have assessed your client and they have discussed their goals with you, it is likely that they will want to design their first mesocycle around a specific type of strength training. What are they?
Hypertrophy - Hypertrophy is the action of increasing muscle volume or mass. A moderate weight is performed using moderate to high repetitions, and a client will use a combination of compound and isolation movements to achieve this goal.
Functional Hypertrophy - Functional hypertrophy is building muscle mass to improve physical performance. Many athletes are aiming to improve functional hypertrophy, so they can perform better in sports.
Maximum Strength - Usually, people aiming for maximum strength are competing in some kind of strength or powerlifting competition. It involves very heavy training, using a lot of compound movements and accessory work, all revolving around boosting the 1 rep max.
Muscular Endurance - Muscular endurance is the ability for muscles to work for prolonged periods of time. People performing activities such as hill running, combat sports or football may need to work on their strength endurance.
Before making any big decisions about exercises, rep ranges, rest times, tempo and so on, understanding your client’s goals, and how strength can play a role in achieving them, should come first.
Passive versus Active Stretches
There are two ways to stretch - passively and actively. Passive stretches involve using some outside resistance to stretch a muscle. That could be a resistance band, bodyweight or another person.
You relax the muscle you are trying to stretch whilst relying on the outside resistance to keep you in place. Active stretches involves contracting the opposing muscle to the one you are stretching. Active stretches are generally considered lower risk because you are not using an external force - you are using your own strength.
When creating a program for your client, there is no right or wrong stretch - it all depends on their goals. We will break down the different types of passive and active stretches now, giving examples and scenarios where those stretches are best.
Static (Passive) Stretching
The first element we will look at is static stretching, a form of passive stretching. A study conducted by Haddad et al (2014) discovered static stretching had a negative effect on performance, whereas dynamic stretching had positive effects on performance. Therefore, if you are designing a program for someone that is aiming for maximum performance, having them perform static stretching before training could be less than optimal. The reason for this is static stretching reduces the amount of contractile force a muscle can create.
It is recommended that your program involves static stretching at the end of a workout. The chosen stretches should work toward the client’s goals. For example, if your client works in an office and his or her goal is to reduce lower back pain from sitting at a desk all day, they may benefit from some additional hip flexor, hamstring and abdominal stretches. This would be in addition to a multi-faceted strength-based program.
Static stretches at the end of a session might look something like this:
Static Hip Flexor Stretch
Seated Hamstring Stretch
Dynamic (Active) Stretching
Whereas static stretching involves holding the muscle in place, dynamic stretching - a form of active stretching - involves putting the body through expected ranges of motion. Hernan and Smith (2008) concluded dynamic stretching, when compared to static stretching, produced longer-term or sustained power, strength, muscular endurance, anaerobic capacity, and agility performance enhancements when performed prior to exercise. We recommend instructing all of your clients to go through a dynamic warm-up, which includes active stretches, to decrease the chance of injury and get them ready for exercise.
How might this look? Well again, it depends on the client’s goals. Let’s say your client has a challenging full-body strength-based workout. Before the session, you may instruct them to go through a combination of dynamic flexibility, ballistic stretches and muscle activation. It may look something like this:
Stationary Bike Pulse Raiser (5 minutes)
Frankenstein Walks (20 total)
Dynamic Downward Facing Dog (20 total)
Reverse Scorpion (20 total)
Push Up Plus (10 reps)
Shoulder Taps (20 reps)
Bird Dogs (20 reps)
Shoulder Circles (10 reps)
PNF (Active) Stretches
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a more advanced form of stretching which involves stretching the muscle and simultaneously contracting the same targeted muscle. It is both effective at improving flexibility, and also muscular strength. PNF stretching causes your brain to say “my muscle is about to tear”, and as a result, the muscle relaxes deeper into a stretch. If your client has some very specific areas they want to improve flexibility in, or if flexibility is a key goal of there’s for a sport, PNF could be a great inclusion into a program.
Hold-relax involves putting a muscle in a stretched position (a static stretch) and holding for a few seconds. Then, the muscle is contracted and pushed against the stretch without moving. A reflex should be triggered at this point and you should be able to go beyond a normal stretch for about 10 seconds. Once relaxed, you can then repeat the stretch, going deeper than previously. This is a stretch that should be quite simple to perform alone after some instructions.
A Contract-relax stretch is similar to the hold-relax stretch, however, the muscle is contracted when moving, as opposed to being stationary like the hold-relax stretch. The other key difference is that a contract-relax stretch involves an isotonic contraction resisted by a therapist.
The Hold-Relax-Contract stretch involves putting the muscle into a mild, comfortable stretch, the client will perform an isometric contraction, then the stretch is increased and they finally contract the agonist muscle.
If your client has a very specific area that is causing issues, for example extremely tight hamstrings, you may wish to include a combination of hold-relax stretches into the program, that they complete alone. Then, during the session, you could include some contract-relax and/or hold-relax-contract stretches you perform together.
Piecing It All Together
Incorporating effective mobility and flexibility work into an exercise program can improve performance whilst decreasing the chance of injury for your clients. A healthy client is a client that will continue to work toward their goals. It is the personal trainer’s job to help a client reach their goals - and by taking a proactive approach to mobility and flexibility, a trainer can ensure their client has the best chance of success.