Flexibility & Injury Prevention

By our resident Personal Trainer & Exercise Rehabilitation Teacher Colm O’Toole MSc.

Flexibility and Injury Prevention

Injury while exercise is an increasing common phenomenon. Despite all the different forms of exercise the risk of injury is always present. These injuries are often divided into several strands including: muscular injury, broken bones, ligament and tendon damage, degenerative conditions and repetitive strain injury to name but some. Not all of the above classifications can be predicted with any certainty. Those which occur suddenly, including falls, pulled muscles and similar injuries cannot possibly be forecast. Additionally degenerative conditions and repetitive strain injuries are often not detected until it is too late.

However the identification of signs and symptoms can often be used to forecast potential future injuries thus allowing subsequent measures to be taken to reduce the possibility of the injury occurring or lessening its effects if it does happen. (One such tool, a comprehensive questionnaire called a Predictive Injury Profile will soon be coming uniquely to 21st Zentury Health)

The most common form of injury comes in the shape of muscular damage. All too often this is preventable if some simple measures are taken. It is important to note at this point that the recommendations of this article are relevant for anybody taking part in regular exercise, be it a weekly Zumba class or team sports, Pilates or boxercise.

The simplest way of preventing injury is to increase flexibility. Flexibility is the muscles ability to return to its original length after being stretched. An increased range of motion will allow this to take place following a greater stretch and will subsequently help to prevent muscular tears. Muscles are simple mechanisms. The only ability they possess is to contract. By contracting they pull on bones (via tendons) and cause movement. If they are lengthen beyond their capability they lose this ability to shorten. If this occurs and the degree of stretch is too great they tear. However if they are lengthened in a controlled manner, the range of motion can increase gradually and the possibility of overstretching becomes more remote.

In studying flexibility we must first consider what happens when a muscle is safely stretched.

When the stretching force is applied to the muscle within the range of motion (red line) has relaxed, the muscle returns to its original flexibility state (blue line) without any improvements. As we can see there is no improvement in muscle flexibility. The point to which force can be applied and the muscle returns to its original condition is called its elastic point.

The elastic point needs to be breached if the muscles flexibility is improved. For this to happen we must take the muscle to its plastic point.

In this graph we can see that the muscle has not returned to its original state and has increased its flexibility properties (green line). Continually stretching to the plastic point will therefore continue to move the elastic point and therefore increase flexibility.

However if the stretch becomes too great, the yield point of a muscle is reached. As the name suggests this is the point where the muscles ‘gives in’ to the stretch and ruptures.

As we can see, at the yield point, the muscle does not increase in flexibility and instead simply tears and does not return to any degree of muscular improvement.

This begs the question: how do we safely increase flexibility so that we push the rupture point of a muscle into the distance and therefore avoid muscular tears? The answer lies simply in stretching. Holding a specific stretch for 30-45 seconds a day three times on all or most days of the week will accomplish this. Additionally activities such as yoga and Pilates have also been shown to increase flexibility. Since there are and endless amount of muscles in the body and there are not enough hours in the day to stretch all of them, it is advisable to select the major muscles groups and target them. Alternatively by getting your particular sports/activities analysed the most relevant muscles can be determined and targeted. A simple battery of flexibility tests, available at 21st Zentury Health, can detect strengths and weaknesses and be used to produce a specialised, individual flexibility plan to help to reduce the possibility and impact of injuries.

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