The four main components of fitness training are cardio, strength, stretching, and balance. Of those, the latter two are often overlooked. Cardio and strength training are obviously very important for developing a strong and healthy body. However, overdoing those and skimping on stretching and balance can lead to muscle tightness, imbalance and asymmetry, eventually leading to injury.
Tight muscles contribute to back and body pain and increased injury risk. Without stretching, muscles tighten and shorten, and when called upon for activity (such as in a tough fitness class), the muscles are weak and unable to extend all the way. They can become damaged from suddenly being stretched, and therefore also cannot protect the joints, leading to joint injury.
Flexibility can improve performance in aerobic and strength training as well as in sport by allowing your body to move unimpeded through a greater range of motion. Stretching after a workout is key to promoting recovery and releasing tension in the exercised muscles.
There are a few types of stretching, with the main two being:
Dynamic stretching—“active” or moving stretches; taking the joint and muscle through its full range of motion. This is a great way to loosen up after your warm-up before a hard workout.
Static stretching—passive stretch, holding each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds. This type of stretching is best done at the end of a workout, when your blood is flowing and the muscles are warm. The key to static stretching is to go to the point of slight discomfort, but not pain. It is important to hold these stretches long enough to get past the initial tightening (the “stretch reflex”) so the muscle fibers can relax and lengthen. Take some deep breaths to help the muscles relax.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends stretching at least twice per week. However, if you’re feeling stiff or have lost mobility, stretching or range of motion exercises should be performed daily. Key muscle groups to focus on are the hamstrings, chest, hip flexors, low back, and calves. Flexibility does not develop overnight—it takes weeks to months of consistent stretching, and you have to continue to stretch to maintain it.
Similarly, balance exercise is important for injury prevention. Balance training improves proprioception-- the connection between brain & body—leading to better body control and injury prevention. Balance deteriorates with age, and poor balance increases risk of falls and fractures in older persons. The ACSM recommends performing balance/neuromotor exercises 2-3 days per week.
Balance exercise improves coordination, training your body to work together. It builds strength in the stabilizing muscles of ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders, helping prevent sprained ankles and knee problems. Balance training also improves brain function and reaction time, forcing your body to immediately respond after a slip or losing your balance in a pose.