Flexibility is a fundamental component of physical fitness. Despite the fact that flexibility is frequently overlooked, often misunderstood, and at times been scientifically controversial, equestrians of all disciplines, will benefit from stretching all the major muscle groups.
Flexibility training can play an essential role in enhancing one’s riding, as well as, reaching peak performance. Riders who possess strong, supple muscles move more comfortably with their horse as one unit, whereas inflexible riders, who exhibit muscular tension and stiffness, produce similar responses from their horses, often interfering with rhythm, suppleness and relaxation. Equestrians require muscles that can withstand the physical demands of riding yet remain both agile and limber, allowing freedom of movement. Although recent research questions the true benefits of stretching, it remains a staple of most exercise programs and is recommended by most fitness professionals.
Flexibility is defined as “range of motion (ROM) within a joint along various planes of motion.” The degree of flexibility is specific to each individual since genetics plays a significant role. One’s joint composition, elasticity of connective tissue, the structure of tendons and ligaments, muscular strength, weight, age and neuromuscular framework, will determine limitations of joint mobility. The goal of stretching is to lengthen muscle fibers, increase elasticity, and improve the range of motion within a joint. Stretching targets the connective tissue (collagen fibers that comprise tendons/ligaments) surrounding a joint, that is frequently prone to stiffness and inflexibility.
Flexibility & Age
No matter the stretching method you choose remember flexibility is specific to each person, each joint, and is effected by choice of athletic activity. Different stretching techniques also yield different results depending on many factors. Age, for instance, has the greatest effect on flexibility. We are most flexible between 7-12 years old, with flexibility leveling off during early adolescence. After age 25 we begin to lose flexibility at a greater rate. Studies show that participating in athletic activities as we age helps maintain muscular elasticity. Interestingly, there is evidence that women are more flexible than men, perhaps due to hormone levels. Pregnant women, for example, with elevated hormone levels tend to experience pelvic and lumbar-sacral laxity. Surprisingly, there is no evidence to suggest that one’s weight or body type limits, or affects one’s range of motion, nor does strength training lead to inflexibility.
There is a good deal of controversy surrounding stretching. Some studies suggest that flexibility training improves range of joint motion, increases muscular relaxation, reduces the risk of injury, enhances movement and improves sport performance. Other studies, however, found no concrete evidence to that effect and are not certain whether flexibility training helps, hurts or improves athletic performance. In 2004, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reviewed six decades of flexibility research and concluded that stretching did not reduce the risk of injury and found that stretching may even hinder athletic performance. Following the study, the CDC concluded that athletes might benefit by participating in a warm up that mimics the intended sport. A proper warm up increases blood flow to working muscles thus requiring more effort than simply stretching. Surprisingly, findings did not support the well-known hypothesis that stretching prevents injury although the CDC did suggest more research is needed to further our knowledge on the subject. Still there are many physicians, athletes and researchers, who deem daily stretching safe and helpful, if done properly. These researchers have found that stretching strengthens both connective tissue and muscle. Despite the controversy, flexibility training remains an integral component of most exercise regiments. Therefore it makes sense for equestrians to incorporate flexibility training into their exercise routines for overall performance enhancement. Reducing tension and stress via stretching lends itself to improved riding posture, leg/hand position and self-carriage. Stretching, in conjunction with a strength training and cardiovascular program, will build a physically strong, yet limber musculature which is an essential goal for every rider.
Types of Stretching
Flexibility can be divided into two distinct types: active (dynamic) and passive (static). Both are important to enhancing sport performance. Passive stretching is employed while the body is at rest, whereas dynamic stretching is utilized while the body is moving.
Dynamic stretching is vital to every athletic endeavor since it’s performed at various speeds of movement, forcing the muscle into an extended range of motion. This results in flexible joints that are easier to move through a safe ROM thus decreasing risk of injury. Dynamic stretching offers a multitude of benefits including; increasing blood volume, synovial fluid and nutrients to joints, preventing joint degeneration, improving neurologic control over muscles, promoting muscular balance, and reducing muscular tension.
Ballistic stretching is an extreme form of dynamic stretching, defined as rapid, uncontrolled bouncing, while stretching. It is considered a high force, short duration stretch performed beyond a muscle’s extended range of motion. It is not recommended for the general public because it can overload soft tissue and/or cause nerve damage. Ballistic stretching is commonly used for sport specific performance enhancement and requires professional supervision.
Static stretching, on the other hand, allows connective tissue to adapt to the stress of physical exercise, through low intensity, long duration controlled stretching. It allows muscles to relax and elongate through a full range of motion. Studies demonstrate that a stretch of long duration and low force successfully lengthens muscle fibers improving elasticity. There is less risk for injury because muscles are allowed to adapt to the stretching overtime.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a form of specialized stretching utilized by physicians, as well as, occupational and physical therapists. It was invented in the 1940’s and 50’s to help patients with neuromuscular injuries. Today professional athletes use PNF to improve range of motion and muscle elasticity.
Lastly, active isolated stretching (AIS) prepares your body for physical activity by isolating individual muscles. Stretches are never held for more than 2 seconds, and are continually repeated so muscles are stretched each time by another few degrees. This aids in lengthening muscles without chance of injury.
We must remember that too much of a good thing can be detrimental to our health. It is possible to overstretch our muscles and inadvertently injure our selves. Since flexibility is specific to each individual there are several considerations to address. Excessive stretching can actually cause laxity of ligaments/tendons resulting in injury, muscular imbalances and even arthritis.
Most every exercise program incorporates flexibility training. Stretch all major muscle groups daily to increase/maintain flexibility. Never stretch a cold muscle. Studies show that stretching a warm muscle will help increase the range of motion. Stretch during your warm up, between strength training sets, or during your cool down for maximum results. Stretching prior to exercise helps decrease stiffness, while stretching following exercise facilitates muscular relaxation, improves circulation and removes lactic acid. Learn how to perform each stretch properly. Proper alignment of muscles is crucial to stretching. There is evidence that stretching exercises that mimic athletic activity improve performance. In addition, do not overstretch injured muscles as they may be susceptible to further harm.
Lastly, stretch muscles slowly and with consistent tension. Chose one stretch for each muscle group. Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds, repeating 2-3 times. Focus on the muscles being stretched. Static stretches are of low intensity and long duration and are best for muscle lengthening. Ballistic stretching is not recommended. Do not bounce while performing a stretch. Stop if you feel any pain! And always remember to breath while stretching. Never hold your breath.
Stretches for Equestrians
Lower Body Stretches