Author: Collin Seymour
Flexibility seems to have a big impact in how athletes perform. As an athlete myself, I have felt my body become less flexible over the years. In high school, I felt as though I was extremely flexible, mainly due to my hurdling background in track, but now I’m unable to stretch my legs or arms nearly as far as I used to. This is one of the reasons why I became more interested in how big of a role flexibility plays in athletic performance.
What role does flexibility have on athletes? There are a number of different roles that flexibility has on athletes. First of all, flexibility contributes tremendously to the mobility of joints, which has a major impact on how good an athlete can be. In sports that require cutting, side to side acceleration, and deceleration at a high intensity, such as football or basketball, athletes ankles need to be very mobile. By stretching, the muscles and tendons can be loosened up, helping to add to this mobility. Having mobility helps the body compensate for the sort of unnatural movements that can occur in sports, which helps to prevent injury. When it comes to having flexible muscles, the more inflexible the muscle, the quicker those muscles will tire. This causes opposing muscle groups, such as the biceps/triceps muscles, to work harder, which could then cause tendons or ligaments to work harder and possibly tear or strain (UC Davis 2019). Another benefit of being adequately flexible for not only athletes, but the general population as well, is an in increase neuromuscular coordination or how well the nervous system can recruit muscles to perform specific movements. This is because, if the body is able to move at its ideal efficiency and flexibility, then the neuromuscular response will become more efficient as well.
The pros have already been touched on, but let’s go more in depth with it. A study looking at hamstring flexibility’s impact on vertical jump, kicking speed, sprinting, and agility found that the flexible group tested better in every category (García-Pinillos, et. al 2015). This can only mean that athletes with more flexibility are better fit for performance. Strength and power are also impacted by flexibility. If a joint can be trained with a full range of motion, instead of limiting the motion, then the muscles will be stronger overall and better fit for a variety of movements. For example, if you have an athlete that only does half-squats, instead of going the full way down to parallel or further, their hamstrings, quads, and glutes will not be as powerful as an athlete that goes through the full range of motion. So, if athletes were to take recovery and flexibility/stretching as seriously as they do lifting and working out, they very well may increase their performance even more.
While it may seem that there isn’t anything wrong with having flexibility, there actually is. People that are hyper flexible are more prone to injury. Their joints are much more likely to dislocate and they are more likely to suffer pain and joint injuries. A study of gymnasts that were hypermobile or hyper flexible found that the most common injury was the lower back pain injury, followed by knee, shoulder, hip and ankle injuries (Bukva et. al 2019). If athletes experience hyper flexibility, the types of injuries that they may experience, can vary from mild to severe. The mild side could be something as little as a rolled or sprained ankle, while the more severe side could be something as serious as a torn ACL. Rehab on these types of injuries would also vary in intensity and duration as well. Strengthening of the tendons and muscles around the affected joint would help to get the athlete healthy, and continued strengthening of that area would help to prevent future injury. What strengthening exercises do for athletes, is gives them more muscle tone, which helps to tighten up the muscles and stabilize the joints. This muscle tone comes from the body’s response to resistance training were muscle fibers or cells increase in size and allow the muscle itself to hypertrophy. While it is more beneficial for certain types of athletes to be very flexible, such as gymnasts, there isn’t an “ideal” range of flexibility for athletes as a whole. Rather, flexibility should be looked at in a sport by sport basis and be individualized to best fit athletes in their respective sports.
Yoga practice being implemented in college athletes seems to have a positive effect on their flexibility and balance. A recent study found that after a 10-week yoga program was enforced into college athletes training programs, there were significant differences between the yoga group and the control group who didn’t do any yoga. Their balance and flexibility were both increased, they also had increased joint angles (Polsgrove et. al 2016). For athletes, especially older athletes (college and above), it appears that putting some sort of yoga training into their exercise programs may help not only with their flexibility but their balance as well. This could be very beneficial in preventing injury as well as having a positive impact on athletic performance.
With athletes seeming to have more and more injuries these days, looking to add yoga and other flexibility options to athletes training may help prevent some of those injuries. Not only can flexibility training help to prevent injury, it can also improve performance by readying the body for unnatural movements that may occur during sports. In my own experience, setting aside 30 minutes to an hour once or twice a week to stretch and focus on soft tissue recovery can help athletes to not only increase their flexibility if they struggle with that, but also will make them feel and perform better. While there are some drawbacks of being too flexible, such as unstable joints and increased risk of injury, I think that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks in most cases.
Bukva, Bojan; Vrgoč, Goran; Madić, Dejan; Sporiš, Goran; Trajković, Nebojša. Correlation between Hypermobility Score and Injury Rate in Artistic Gymnastics. Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 59 (2019), 2; 330-334 doi:10.23736/S0022-4707.18.08133-1
García-Pinillos F, Ruiz-Ariza A, Moreno del Castillo R & Latorre-Román P. Á. (2015) Impact of limited hamstring flexibility on vertical jump, kicking speed, sprint, and agility in young football players. Journal of Sports Sciences,33:12, 1293-1297, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2015.1022577
Polsgrove M J, Eggleston BM, Luckyer RJ. Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. Int J Yoga 2016;9:27-34
UC Davis Health, and Sports Medicine. Flexibility: UC Davis Sports Medicine. UC Davis Health 2019.