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CHAPTER 4

Flexibility

Flexibility is a component of physical fitness. Developing and maintaining it are important parts of a fitness program. Good flexibility can help a soldier accomplish such physical tasks as lifting, loading, climbing, parachuting, running, and rappelling with greater efficiency and less risk of injury.

Flexibility refers to the range of movement of a joint.

Flexibility is the range of movement of a joint or series of joints and their associated muscles. It involves the ability to move a part of the body through the full range of motion allowed by normal, disease-free joints.

No one test can measure total-body flexibility. However, field tests can be used to assess flexibility in the hamstring and low-back areas. These areas are commonly susceptible to injury due, in part, to loss of flexibility. A simple toe-touch test can be used. Soldiers should stand with their legs straight and feet together and bend forward slowly at the waist. A soldier who cannot touch his toes without bouncing or bobbing needs work to improve his flexibility in the muscle groups stretched by this test. The unit's Master Fitness Trainer can help him design a stretching program to improve his flexibility.

Stretching during the warm-up and cool-down helps soldiers maintain overall flexibility. Stretching should not be painful, but it should cause some discomfort because the muscles are being stretched beyond their normal length. Because people differ somewhat anatomically, comparing one person's flexibility with another's should not be done. People with poor flexibility who try to stretch as far as others may injure themselves.

Stretching Techniques

Using good stretching techniques can improve flexibility. There are four commonly recognized categories of stretching techniques: static, passive, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and ballistic. These are described here and shown later in this chapter.

The four categories of stretching techniques are static, passive, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and ballistic.

STATIC STRETCHING

Static stretching involves the gradual lengthening of muscles and tendons as a body part moves around a joint. It is a safe and effective method for improving flexibility. The soldier assumes each stretching position slowly until he feels tension or tightness. This lengthens the muscles without causing a reflex contraction in the stretched muscles. He should hold each stretch for ten seconds or longer. This lets the lengthened muscles adjust to the stretch without causing injury.

The longer a stretch is held, the easier it is for the muscle to adapt to that length. Static stretching should not be painful. The soldier should feel slight discomfort, but no pain. When pain results from stretching, it is a signal that he is stretching a muscle or tendon too much and may be causing damage.

PASSIVE STRETCHING

Passive stretching involves the soldier's use of a partner or equipment, such as a towel, pole, or rubber tubing, to help him stretch. This produces a safe stretch through a range of motion he could not achieve without help. He should talk with his partner to ensure that each muscle is stretched safely through the entire range of motion.

PNF STRETCHING

PNF stretching uses the neuromuscular patterns of each muscle group to help improve flexibility. The soldier performs a series of intense contractions and relaxations using a partner or equipment to help him stretch. The PNF technique allows for greater muscle relaxation following each contraction and increases the soldier's ability to stretch through a greater range of motion.

BALLISTIC STRETCHING

Ballistic, or dynamic, stretching involves movements such as bouncing or bobbing to attain a greater range of motion and stretch. Although this method may improve flexibility, it often forces a muscle to stretch too far and may result in an injury. Individuals and units should not use ballistic stretching.

FITT Factors

Commanders should include stretching exercises in all physical fitness programs.
The following FITT factors apply when developing a flexibility program.

Frequency: Do flexibility exercises daily. Do them during the warm-up to help prepare the muscles for vigorous activity and to help reduce injury. Do them during the cool-down to help maintain flexibility.

Intensity: Stretch a muscle beyond its normal length to the point of tension or slight discomfort, not pain.

Time: Hold stretches for 10 to 15 seconds for warming up and cooling down and for 30 seconds or longer to improve flexibility.

Type: Use static stretches, assumed slowly and gradually, as well as passive stretching and/or PNF stretching.

Warm-Up and Cool-Down

The warm-up and cool-down are very important parts of a physical training session, and stretching exercises should be a major part of both.

THE WARM-UP

Before beginning any vigorous physical activity, one should prepare the body for exercise. The warm-up increases the flow of blood to the muscles and tendons, thus helping reduce the risk of injury. It also increases the joint's range of motion and positively affects the speed of muscular contraction.

The warm-up warms the muscles, increasing the flow of blood and reducing the risk of injury.
A recommended sequence of warm-up activities follows. Soldiers should do these for five to seven minutes before vigorous exercise.
  • Slow jogging-in-place or walking for one to two minutes. This causes a gradual increase in the heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and increases the temperature of the active muscles.
  • Slow joint rotation exercises (for example, arm circles, knee/ankle rotations) to gradually increase the joint's range of motion. Work each major joint for 5 to 10 seconds.
  • Slow, static stretching of the muscles to be used during the upcoming activity. This will "loosen up" muscles and tendons so they can achieve greater ranges of motion with less risk of injury. Hold each stretch position for 10 to 15 seconds, and do not bounce or bob.
  • Calisthenic exercise, as described in Chapter 7, to increase the intensity level before the activity or conditioning period.
  • Slowly mimic the activities to be performed. For example, lift a lighter weight to warm-up before lifting a heavier one. This helps prepare the neuromuscular pathways.

THE COOL-DOWN

The cool-down helps the solider taper off gradually before stopping completely.
The following information explains the importance of cooling down and how to do it correctly.
  • Do not stop suddenly after vigorous exercise, as this can be very dangerous. Gradually bring the body back to its resting state by slowly decreasing the intensity of the activity. After running, for example, one should walk for one to two minutes. Stopping exercise suddenly can cause blood to pool in the muscles, thereby reducing blood flow to the heart and brain. This may cause fainting or abnormal rhythms in the heart which could lead to serious complications.
  • Repeat the stretches done in the warm-up to help ease muscle tension and any immediate feeling of muscle soreness. Be careful not to overstretch. The muscles are warm from activity and can possibly be overstretched to the point of injury.
  • Hold stretches 30 seconds or more during the cool-down to improve flexibility. Use partner-assisted or PNF techniques, if possible.

The soldier should not limit flexibility training to just the warm-up and cool-down periods. He should sometimes use an entire PT session on a "recovery" or "easy" training day to work on flexibility improvement. He may also work on it at home. Stretching is one form of exercise that takes very little time relative to the benefits gained.

Rotation Exercises

Rotation exercises are used to gently stretch the tendons, ligments, and muscles associated with a joint and to stimulate lubrication of the joint with synovial fluid. This may provide better movement and less friction in the joint.

The following exercises should be performed slowly.

Common Stretching Exercises

The following exercises improve flexibility when performed slowly, regularly, and with gradual progression. Static, passive and PNF stretches are shown.

CAUTION: Some of these exercises may be difficult or too strenuous for unfit or medically limited soldiers. Common sense should be used in selecting stretching exercises.

STATIC STRETCHES

Assume all stretching positions slowly until you feel tension or slight discomfort. Hold each position for at least 10 to 15 seconds during the warm-up and cool-down. Developmental stretching to improve flexibility requires holding each stretch for 30 seconds or longer.

Choose the appropriate stretch for the muscle groups which you will be working.

PASSIVE STRETCHES

Passive stretching is done with the help of a partner or equipment. The examples in this chapter show passive stretching with a towel or with a partner. When stretching alone, using a towel may help the exerciser achieve a greater range of motion.

PNF STRETCHES

Soldiers can do PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretches for most major muscle groups. PNF stretches use a series of contractions, done against a partner's resistance, and relaxations.

Obtaining a safe stretch beyond the muscle's normal length requires a partner's assistance. The following four steps provide general guidance as to how PNF stretches are done. Both the exerciser and partner should follow these instructions:

1. Assume the stretch position slowly with the partner's help.

2. Isometrically contract the muscles to be stretched. Hold the contraction for 5 to 10 seconds against the partner's unyielding resistance.

3. Relax. Next, contract the antagonistic muscles for 5 to 10 seconds while the partner helps the exerciser obtain a greater stretch.

4. Repeat this sequence three times, and try to stretch a little further each time. (Caution: The exerciser should not hold his breath. He should breathe out during each contraction.)

Several examples of PNF stretches are provided below in a stepwise fashion. The numbers given above for each step correspond to the general description listed below.

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