• Introduction
  • What is flexibility in sports exactly?
  • Flexibility can be divided into dynamic flexibility and static flexibility
  • Why are some athletes more flexible than others?
  • Anatomical factors of flexibility in sports
  • Sex differences in flexibility
  • Your flexibility changes as you grow older
  • Sports background has a strong connection to flexibility
  • Here’s how you improve your flexibility in sports
  • Benefits of flexibility in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

It’s no surprise that our modern lifestyle revolves around physically passive days where most work is done at an office – and often sitting down. Gone are the days when people spent most of their day doing physical work. Sure, this has brought us a lot of comfort into our daily lives but it is also shaping our bodies towards an unfavorable direction. 

A passive lifestyle not only causes overweight issues, but it is also the main culprit of most of the problems that occur in our musculoskeletal systems (muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, connective tissue and fascia), including muscular tightness, bad posture and lower-back pain. For an athlete, these effects can reduce your performance, hinder your progress and even lead to long rehabilitation periods due to injuries – and that’s not what any of us want.

That’s why we’ve created this informative article so that you can maintain and improve your flexibility and reap the benefits that it provides for your sports performance. If you have no time to read and you’re itching to get your stretch on, you can also check out our flexibility training post here.

What is flexibility in sports exactly?

Flexibility is used to describe the mobility of a single limb, joint or muscle. This, on the other hand, is crucial in your ability to move your body both efficiently and safely. Flexibility also utilizes every single component of your body and varies from person to person and joint to joint. This means that your every joint, tendon, muscle and ligament have their own characteristics and mechanical properties. Therefore, flexibility development is also determined by how you perform your regular physical activities as well as what kind of stretching you do. After all, your goal is to optimize the range of motion (ROM) you need in your sport while maintaining joint stability.

Flexibility is also an important building block for other fitness components that are required for an active lifestyle or even an athletic career. You see, your strength, power, speed and even your endurance require a sufficient range of motion to perform in the best way possible. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that flexibility has a strong connection to athletic performance. The simple fact is that if a muscle is tight and inflexible, you won’t be able to utilize its full strength potential. And, since the body works as a combination of muscles, one weak muscle can ruin the whole kinetic chain (movement through multiple body segments) during your performance. Therefore, athletes must maintain a sufficient range of motion required in their sport to ensure athletic progression without the risk of injury.

It is important to note that the relationship between flexibility and athletic performance are sports-specific and not all sports require the same amount of flexibility. In fact, increased muscle stiffness may even be beneficial in some high-intensity sports due to bigger force production. Too much flexibility can even lead to joint health issues later on.

Another thing worth noting is that in a sports context, flexibility and stretching come in many different forms. For example, you can divide flexibility into active and passive flexibility or compare different stretching methods that should be done before or after a workout – or even as its own training routine. There’s also tons of different ways of stretching that vary in technique, intensity, duration and the physical effect it has on your body.

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Stretching before physical activity prepares your muscles for training whereas stretching after exercise has proven to prevent injuries and speed up recovery.

Flexibility can be divided into dynamic and static flexibility

Flexibility can be divided into two different categories; stretches that involve movement are called dynamic flexibility and the ones that don’t involve movement are referred to as static flexibility. While they both involve your body’s ability to move freely without physical restrictions, they rely on somewhat different mechanisms. 

Dynamic flexibility, also known as kinetic flexibility, describes your ability to move freely through a limb’s or joint’s full range of motion with muscle work. Dynamic stretching is great for increasing your range of motion, muscle temperature and nervous system activity, making it a solid warm-up choice for a variety of sports.

Static-active flexibility, also referred to as active flexibility, describes your ability to assume a position and maintain it to create a stretch somewhere else. In more technical terms, active flexibility utilizes agonists (muscle that creates movement) and synergists (muscles that stabilize joints during movement) to stretch their opposing muscles, known as antagonists. Active flexibility also always stays within your current range of motion which means you’re much less likely to overstretch and injure a muscle. One example of this is to lift your leg as high as possible to create a stretch and keep it there.

Static-passive flexibility, or passive flexibility, describes how flexible your muscles are in a relaxed state. It relies on your ability to stay longer in a stretch using body weight or external help such as a strap, a wall or other light resistance. Some passive flexibility methods are even done with a partner to gently push you beyond your comfort zone. Inner thigh stretch on your back and the splits are great examples of passive stretching that do not require muscle contraction. These types of longer passive stretches also tend to relax the muscle and improve flexibility which is why they also need their own training session. Don’t perform long passive exercises before exercising or right after heavy weight training. 

”Your connective tissue is less likely to tear even in unexpected situations if it is used to stretching”

The type of flexibility you need depends heavily on the sport that you participate in. For example, dynamic and active flexibility is needed especially in aesthetic sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating. On the other hand, swimmers also have to have a good range of motion in their shoulders during crawl swimming. This helps them reduce drag in the water while propelling themselves forward with each stroke. Passive flexibility, however, is useful in activities where you must stay in a stretch for longer without active muscle work. For example, yoga and even circus-style contortionists often rely on passive flexibility.

The good thing is that both passive and active flexibility can be improved with a well-designed stretching program. However, you should also remember that active flexibility is more difficult to improve than passive flexibility, because you simply can’t build strength and control in a range of motion you’re unable to access. Thus, both active and passive flexibility require specifically designed training programs to progress in an effective and safe way.

Here’s a little comparison chart between dynamic and static flexibility in sports;

Dynamicflexibility


Dynamic flexibility via active muscle workMaintains range of motionRelies on passive flexibility

Static-activeflexibility


Static flexibility via active muscle workMaintains range of motionRelated to passive flexibility

Static-passiveflexibility


Flexibility of a relaxed muscleIncreases range of motionDecreases risk of overstretching a muscleSupports active flexibility

Why are some athletes more flexible than others?

Your flexibility is a combination of a number of physiological effects, including anatomy, sex, age, as well as your training background. Not only do these factors have a big impact on your flexibility but also your athletic performance and overall wellness. However, the good thing is that flexibility can be maintained and even improved with a well-rounded flexibility training program. 

Anatomical factors of flexibility in sports

Anatomical factors, such as the flexibility of your joints, muscles, fascia, tendons and even muscle temperature can have a tremendous impact on your overall flexibility. In fact, even the shape of your bones and joints can restrict your range of movement and therefore have an effect on your performance. The good thing is that your range of motion and your tissue’s ability to tolerate stretching can greatly improve after only a few weeks of flexibility training. However, actual structural changes usually occur after 6-8 weeks of continuous stretching.

The reason why these anatomical factors are so important for healthy athletic progression is the fact that the flexibility of your connective tissue (joints, tendons, ligaments and fascia) are crucial in maintaining good posture. This prevents unfavorable joint alignments which can cause muscular unbalances and unnecessary strain on your spine. In short, increased flexibility helps maintain the natural mobility of a joint which can enhance your performance through better strength production and improved mechanics. The better your range of motion is – the better efficiency you have while moving. Flexibility also maintains the functionality of your kinetic chain which describes your body’s ability to produce movement through the coordination of multiple body segments.

”Flexibility exercises retrain your nervous system to signal less pain, letting you go deeper into a stretch.”

Joints refer to areas where two or more bones meet each other. In fact, they are responsible for connecting the whole body together. There are three distinct types of joints in the body;

  • Joints that allow no movement, such as some bones in the skull (synarthrodial joints)
  • Joints that allow minimal movement, such as the spine (amphiarthrodial joints)
  • Joints that allow significant movement, such as arms or legs (diarthrodial joints)

Joints that allow no movement are meant to maintain a similar position throughout your life. On the other hand, joints with minimal movement, such as the spine, rely on being both flexible and stable at the same time. This is also one of the reasons why nearly 80% of people tend to suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Joints that offer the most amount of movement are also the ones responsible for your overall feeling of stiffness or flexibility. Thus, if you want to maintain or improve your flexibility, these are the joints you should focus on.

Muscles also have a strong connection to your flexibility. While muscle tissue is often considered to be one of the main culprits of stiffness, this is not entirely true. In fact, if you consider a muscle a rubber band (stretch-shortening cycle), added flexibility could even have a negative effect on elasticity and therefore, your power production. It is important to note that regular stretching does not stretch the muscle, but it forces your nervous system to adapt to constant stretching. The more you stretch, the less likely your nervous system is to send a painful signal reminding you not to overstretch and damage your muscles. Therefore, stretching retrains your nervous system to signal less pain, letting you go deeper into a stretch.

Fascia is a web of connective tissue that wraps every muscle, organ, tendon and ligament in your body. Their function is to stabilize muscles, separate them from other organs and reduce friction during movement. And, unlike tendons and ligaments, fascia is supposed to move, twist and stretch with your body. In fact, they are also the most flexible tissue in the body, which makes it the best option to focus on if you want to improve your flexibility. Healthy fascia rarely causes any issues in flexibility, but physical inactivity and different injuries can bind it together, making muscle movement less flexible. Often times when you feel a knot in your back, it is caused by fascia that is tense and tight. The best remedies for these symptoms are massage and light exercise.

Muscle temperature can also have a significant effect on your range of motion. Multiple studies have shown that warmer muscles have better mobility than colder ones. This is due to the fact that warming up raises the temperature of your blood, muscles, ligaments and tendons, giving your limbs more ”room” to move freely. Hence, a proper warmup is not only important for athletic performance but injury prevention too.

The less you use our muscles, the less flexible they will become.

Sex differences in flexibility 

Sex differences in athletic performance have been under a microscope lately, and for good reason! As more and more women have the opportunity to pursue an athletic career, sports scientists have stepped up their efforts in studying the biological differences in sports performance between men and women. As far as flexibility goes, there are a few differences that need to be considered, including hormonal activity which leads to a different physical build. 

When it comes to sports performance, flexibility is a fitness component that women excel at. This is due to the fact that women tend to have naturally less muscle mass, a higher body fat percentage, and more estrogen (female sex hormone). Estrogen also has a relaxing effect on collagen, which is a protein responsible for connective tissue elasticity and an important building block of cartilage, joints, tendons and ligaments. This, of course, means that women are naturally predisposed to better mobility and therefore thrive in sports that require flexibility and a greater range of motion.

Women also tend to have wider hips with thinner and more flexible cartilage, making childbirth possible. For the same reason, they also have better flexibility and support in the lumbar region or the lower spine. This is a result of two things; first, women have larger joints in the back and second, their lower back curvature (lordosis) utilizes three vertebrae instead of the two vertebrae than men are able to use. After all, women have to stand upright and carry a baby for nine months while maintaining daily activities during pregnancy. Naturally, this added flexibility also reflects in athletic performance as well.

Interestingly, studies have shown that women also tend to have a greater proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are more resistant to age-related decline in flexibility and strength than fast-twitch muscle fibers. This means that women may experience fewer adverse effects of aging than men do. 

Your flexibility changes as you grow older

Your flexibility is at its peak during the early childhood years. For example, the mobility of your spine is at its best right before turning 10 years old. On the other hand, your ball & socket joints (shoulder and hips) tend to lose their range of motion even at that age if they are not trained properly. As you hit puberty and grow physically larger, your body tends to become less flexible. This is due to the fact that during growth spurts some children experience such rapid growth in bone length that muscles and tendons can’t keep up with these physical changes. However, being able to maintain flexibility during your early teenage years can carry over into better mobility later in life and promote an active lifestyle. In fact, it is easier to maintain your flexibility than it is to improve it, and the best way to do this is to utilize the sensitivity period in flexibility training at the ages of 11-14. 

During adulthood, your body naturally continues to lose its flexibility. In fact, studies have stated that people tend to lose 20-30% of their range of motion between the ages of 30 and 70. These changes happen because of several reasons. First, your tissues and spine tend to lose water which results in decreased elasticity. Second, your cartilage, which works as a cushion between joints and connective tissue, becomes thinner and starts losing its flexibility. Third, your ligaments tend to shorten and restrict movement while your muscles become weaker due to the loss of muscle fibers and muscle mass. This effect, also known as sarcopenia, is often related to weight gain which may exacerbate the problem even further.

Some studies have also stated that your collagen becomes less soluble, more cross-linked as well as increases in content inside the muscle, further decreasing your range of motion. On top of that, degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis (reduced bone density) and arthritis become more and more common as you age which can significantly hinder your overall health. 

Sports background has a strong connection to flexibility

Your training background can have a significant effect on your flexibility, which is due to the fact that our bodies always adjust to the way we use them. For example, regular exercise that utilizes your joints’ full range of motion can easily maintain mobility while inactive individuals are at a higher risk of experiencing muscular stiffness and loss of elasticity. As far as your athletic background goes, the biggest factors in flexibility are how you utilize your muscles’ active range of motion, your overall physical activity and possible injuries that you’ve sustained. 

Your muscles’ active range of motion refers to your ability to utilize the joint’s whole range of motion through active muscle work. While resistance training, especially bodybuilding, is often considered to cause stiffness in the muscles due to added muscle mass, this is not entirely true. In fact, the size of a muscle has little to do with how flexible it is as long as you utilize its full functional range of motion during exercise. For example, weight lifters often rate highly against other athletes in flexibility because their sport-specific techniques rely on natural movement patterns that require a great deal of coordination, mobility and stability. This helps maintain the correct joint alignments leading to better flexibility, increased strength and reduced injury risk.

Your training background and age-related physiological factors are not the only reasons for reduced mobility. In fact, a physically inactive lifestyle may be even more harmful to your range of motion than aging itself. Some studies have stated that being physically inactive for just four days can cause increased amounts of fibrous connective tissue (fibrosis) leading to impaired mobility. The reason for this is that low physical activity increases the amount of collagen in the ligaments while shortening the muscle fibers and decreasing muscle mass. As a result, your body tends to tense up, lose flexibility and decrease muscular strength which leads to unfavorable posture. Naturally, this has a very detrimental effect on both your overall health as well as your athletic performance.

Injuries also have a significant effect on flexibility, and they are often caused when a muscle or a joint is forced beyond its normal limits with excessive force. When a muscle is damaged your body doesn’t replace the injured area with new muscle, but with fibrous scar tissue that is significantly weaker and less flexible than the muscle tissue it replaces. As scar tissue builds up, it tends to bind injured tissues together, which leads to fewer muscle fibres working together. As a result, your muscular strength and range of motion can reduce significantly. Sometimes scar tissue can even trap a nerve, causing numbness, tingling or even pain.

Your fascia is the most important factor to focus on if you want to improve your flexibility.

Here’s how you improve your flexibility in sports

You can look at stretching in two different ways; the way you perform them or by the effect you want them to have on your body. We are going to focus on the latter and explain the differences are between preworkout and postworkout stretching as well as stretches that aim to improve flexibility. One thing to note is that regular exercising and even resistance training are also great for improving flexibility as long as you utilize a joint’s full range of motion.

Pre-workout stretching refers to the flexibility exercises that you perform before physical activity. These exercises are not meant to improve your overall flexibility but rather to prepare your body for the upcoming activity. Short pre-workout stretches boost the muscles’ neuromuscular activity, meaning that you’ll be able to recruit more muscle fibers with as little effort as possible. In short, they prepare your muscles for the upcoming exercise and even help prevent injuries during exercise.

Post-workout exercises aim to relax the muscles after working out. Medium-length stretches help return your muscles to their resting length and increase blood flow. This, on the other hand, helps move unwanted byproducts within the muscles and boosts recovery.

Increasing your flexibility should focus on the most common improvable factor in restricted movement; the fascia. Therefore, if you want to improve your flexibility, you need to create a training routine that specifically caters to it and don’t try to increase your flexibility before or after a workout. Improving flexibility requires very long static stretches that stop your muscles from contracting even under a deep stretch. You can even perform some foam rolling to challenge your body even more. The benefits of increasing flexibility include decreased injury risk and better posture.

Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining and improving your flexibility in sports. So, whether you are doing strength training or trying to improve your endurance, you should always remember to work the whole range of the muscle to prevent it from becoming stiff in the first place. Often times the best flexibility training programs combine both resistance training and different stretching methods for the best results. Even as you age and might feel like your body isn’t able to do what it used to, instead of limiting yourself, try to maintain and or increase your mobility to prevent further loss of function. This will help you stay active and healthy for years to come. 

We’ve also created an in-depth guide on how to take full advantage of flexibility in your sport. There’s even a few free stretching programs to get you started. Feel free to check it out. 

Use the whole range of motion of a muscle to prevent it from becoming stiff.

Benefits of flexibility in sports

Good flexibility has a number of benefits in sports performance due to the fact that it helps your perform at an optimal range of motion. Not only does this improve your performance, it also speeds up your recovery, prevents injuries, enhances efficiency during exercise and improves your posture. Long static stretches can even be used for meditative purposes to relax and train your mental performance.

Improved performance may be the biggest benefit of good flexibility. The reason behind this is that regular stretching helps maintain the optimal movement patterns for any given sport. This results in better physical performance and improved movement efficiency, which refers to your ability to have the best possible performance with as little effort as possible. Improved movement efficiency is a result of increased range of motion in the body, which means that you are able to use the muscles’ full potential while moving without any physical restrictions. Flexible muscles and consistent stretching also offer increased blood flow in and out of the muscles. This not only brings vital nutrients to the muscles but also helps move away unwanted byproducts, such as lactate. These effects lead to a faster recovery which means you can train harder and more often.

”Better range of motion - better efficiency while moving.”

Having a good balance between flexibility and strength also promotes good posture. This is especially important during physical activity due to the forces that you face throughout your performance. You have to be able to use your joints, limbs and muscles in their intended range of motion to be both efficient and safe. Flexibility and good range of motion and good posture are often connected to reduced risk of injury. However, according to most studies, the connection between flexibility and overall lowered injury risk is inconclusive. On the other hand, there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that better flexibility improves the healthy mobility of limbs which also promotes good posture. And, since bad posture and unbalanced strength have a direct connection to heightened injury risk, it is safe to say that better flexibility could prevent injuries in the long run. Additionally, there are no signs indicating that stretching would increase injury risk in any sport. More importantly, you should know how to stretch and when.

Regular stretching can even have some mental benefits as well. The reason behind is that focusing on your breath during stretching can help you get your mind off everyday activities. Therefore, it can be used for stress relief and meditation purposes. Not only does this have a calming effect for your mind and body, but it also promotes mental health. One of the best example of this sort of practice is Yoga.

Here’s a quick recap of the benefits of flexibility in sports;

Improves athletic performance

Promotes good posture

Speeds up recovery

Can reduce injury risk

Increases range of motion

Enhances joint health

Relieves cramps

Prevents lower back pain

Reduces muscle tension and imbalance

Maintains functional length of muscles

Reduces stress and promotes mental health

Improves the efficiency of the neuromuscular system

Lowered range of motion can lead to further loss of flexibility and range of motion, muscular imbalances as well as heightened risk of injury.

Final thoughts

When we think about the relationship between flexibility and athletic performance, we have to keep our individual needs in mind. After all, not all sports require the same amount of flexibility. Aesthetic sports such as dancing, gymnastics, figure skating and diving rely heavily on the athletes ability to be flexible and look stylish while performing. You’ll rarely see that in rugby, right?

As we’ve learned, there are a few different ways to stretch and they all have their own effects. That is why it’s up to you to decide how you stretch and how it translates to your performance and overall health. So, do your flexibility exercises and remember to stretch at least all major muscle groups before and after a workout.

There’s no question that regular flexibility training can improve your performance and keep you healthy for a long time. You simply can’t assume that you’ll be able to do continuous intense exercises without balancing it out with stretching. Even if you don’t work out a lot you can still benefit from regular mobility exercises.

As we’ve said before, flexibility training should be incorporated into every well-balanced training routine. This can offer you a valuable time to take your mind off other forms of training and help you concentrate in other important things in your life. As always, you must find a balance between nutrition, exercise and rest to stay healthy and keep developing as an athlete. Have clear goals in your mind, be versatile in your training and enjoy the ride. Do these and you’ll be one step closer to becoming the best in your field.

Did you learn anything new about flexibility in sports? Let us know in the comments below!

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    Daniel Kiikka

    Daniel Kiikka holds a Master’s Degree in sports science, with a focus on sports pedagogy. After graduating from the University of Jyväskylä in 2015, Daniel has worked within the world-renowned Finnish educational system as a physical education and health science teacher.

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