What to consider before stretching.
Stretching and flexibility are so often overlooked. How many times have you been training, you get to the end, then you walk straight out? Well today stretching is going to be the centre of attention. The life and soul of the party. We are going to walk you through what it really means to stretch. The benefits it will bring to your life as a whole, and how you can start applying it to your life today. We want you to make flexibility ease and flow into your life, so that you’re life can be just as seamless.
One piece of the jigsaw…
There are a large number of aspects to optimal health and fitness. Ranging from strength and endurance, to speed and agility. Most people will only focus on a small number of these elements, but to truly harness the potential your body holds. You must encompass them all. Flexibility is a vital part of this overall map but it is important to see it as only one spoke in the fitness wheel.
What the majority of people will do is double down on their strengths. Sticking with what they are ‘naturally’ good at. This will get you some results but we say – double down on your weaknesses. This way you will bring the whole wheel to the same level. Therefore being able to make every part a ‘natural strength’. This can be said for fitness as a whole, but also for flexibility too. This is because you may be flexible in one area but that does not necessarily mean you will be completely flexible.
The dangers of poor flexibility…
Tight joints and muscles will limit the way you move. We all know someone, or you may be that person, who struggles to reach down for something. Who cannot be in one position for a long time. Not only will it have an effect on your everyday life, but if you are looking to perform at your best level, with poor flexibility. You may want to re-think, as it will be far less likely than you realise. If the muscles cannot move freely, then the potential energy use will be significantly reduced. Resulting in a dramatic loss in strength and power.
In special cases, the lack of stretching can result in restricted blood circulation. Poor circulation can result in increased muscle fatigue and, ultimately, impede the muscles’ repair process. Also the ability to recover from strenuous activity will be impaired. Therefore causing an easily avoidable barrier to your goals.
What is stopping you from stretching?
The muscular system needs to be flexible to achieve peak performance, and stretching is the most effective way to do so. It is the number one way in which to develop and retain flexible muscles and tendons. However, a number of other factors also contribute to a decrease in flexibility.
These all restrict the muscle movement at a certain joint;
- Muscle Bulk
- Muscle Length
- Restrictive Clothing
One of the most common external factors that people seem to turn victim to, is that of age. It is no secret that with each passing year your muscles and joints begin to stiffen. This is part of the ageing process and is caused by a combination of physical degeneration and inactivity. Although, you are unable to completely stop this inevitable process. It should not mean that you give up trying to improve your flexibility.
Age should not be a barrier to a fit and active lifestyle but certain precautions should be taken as you get older. You just need to work at it a little bit longer, invest the time and knowledge to enable your future self to move better.
Out of your control…
When you are aiming to improve your flexibility, the muscles and their fascia should be the major focus of your training. While the internal factors stated above will contribute to your overall flexibility, you have little control over these factors.
- Bones and Joints – These are structured in such a way as to only allow a specific range of movement, only very slight alterations can be made.
- Ligaments – Connecting bone to bone, these act as stabilisers for joints. Stretching here should be avoided as it can result in permanent reduction of stability at that joint. This can then lead to weakness and injury.
- Tendons – Connecting muscles to bone, these are extremely strong and very pliable. Tendons do play and important role in the overall stability, but only around 10%. Therefore tendons should not be the primary focus of your stretching routine.
Make the muscle the stretching centre point…
This leaves the actual muscle as your focal point. All muscles work scientifically in the same way, but each individual will have a variety of ranges. This all depends on your genetics, so how your muscle is primarily built, and also your past experience. Those of you who did gymnastics as a child are going to be far more flexible than those who did not. Especially after the previous point ,that age plays a huge role. However, the science is still the same. The muscle is made up of a number of aspects (all with beautifully complicated names) first you must extend these to their maximum reach. Then from here you are able to hold them. Using a deep, consistent breathing technique, ever so slightly stretch all aspects a little further. Resulting in an elongated muscle that will eventually lengthen as you continue the practise.
The value stretching will add to you…
Move more freely
By placing particular parts of the body in certain positions, you are able to increase the length of the muscle. As a result of this, a reduction in general muscle tension is achieved and your normal range of movement is increased. By increasing your range of movement you are increasing the distance your limbs can move before damage occurs to the muscles and tendons. The benefits of an increased range of movement include; increased comfort, a greater ability to move with ease, and a lowering in the risk of injuries and strains.
There is a dangerous myth – that “if you stretch too much you will lose both joint stability and muscle power“. This is a false claim. By increasing our muscles’ length, you are increasing the distance over which they are able to contract. This results in a potential increase to our muscles’ power. Therefore it raises our athletic ability, while also leading to an improvement in dynamic balance, or the ability to control our muscles.
Reduce ‘next day soreness’
We are sure that you have all experienced the pain the next day from a run or hard gym session. This is the result of micro tears within the muscle, blood pooling and accumulating waste products, like lactic acid. Stretching as a cool down, works to alleviate this soreness by lengthening individual muscles fibres, increasing blood circulation, and removing waste products.
Fatigue can be a major problem for many people. Not just in terms of physical training, but in our ever increasing day-to-day lives. Resulting in a decrease in both mental and physical performance. Increased flexibility through stretching can help the effects of fatigue by taking the pressure off the working muscles. For every muscle, there is an opposing one working against it. If this muscle is more flexible, the working muscles do not need to use as much force against it. Therefore requiring less effort and energy to move each one.
As well as the main benefits listed above, stretching can also give you the following;
- Improve posture
- Develop body awareness
- Improve co-ordination
- Promote circulation
- Increase relaxation
- Relieve stress
Types of stretching…
Just as there are many different ways to strength train, there are also a variety of ways to stretch. However, it is important to note that no one way in particular, no one type of stretching, is better than another. Each type has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. The key to getting the most out stretching lies in being able to match the right type of stretching to the purpose or goal you are trying to achieve.
Although, there are many different types of stretching method, they can at least all be grouped into two major categories: static or dynamic.
Exercises that are performed without movement are termed “static stretches”. In other words, the individual gets into the stretch position and holds the stretch for a specific amount of time. Listed below are 5 different types of static stretching exercises;
Perform static stretching by placing the body into a position whereby, under tension, you stretch the muscle. Firstly, relax the working and the opposing muscle. Then move the body slowly in such a way to increase the tension of the muscle being stretched. At this point the position is held or maintained to allow the muscle to lengthen. They require a minimum hold of about 20 seconds for the muscle to relax and start to lengthen, you would expect to experience diminishing returns after 45-60 seconds.
Static stretching is an extremely safe and effective form of stretching, with a limited threat of injury. It is a good choice for beginners and sedentary individuals.
This form of stretching is similar to static stretching. However, another person or apparatus is used to help further stretch the muscle. Due to the greater force applied this form can be a little more hazardous. Therefore it is important that the support used is stable and secure. If you do use a partner, make sure that you choose wisely. As they will be responsible for the safety of your muscles and joints at that particular time.
Passive stretching is useful in helping to attain a greater range of movement, due to the extra force that you are able to apply to the muscle. Therefore it does carried with it some added risk, but overall is quite a safe method of stretching.
Active stretching is performed without any aid or assistance from an external force. This form of stretching involves using only the strength of the opposing muscles to generate a stretch within the targeted muscle group. The contraction of the opposing muscles helps to relax the stretched muscles.
Active stretching is useful as a rehabilitation tool and very effective form of conditioning before moving on to dynamic stretches. This type though, should only be held for 10-15 seconds as it is usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for long periods of time.
During PNF stretches, position the specific area so that the muscle is under tension. The individual then contracts the stretched muscle for a certain amount of time while a partner applies sufficient resistance to inhibit movement. The effort of the contraction should be relevant to the level of conditioning. As the contracted muscle relaxes, apply a controlled stretch for about 30 seconds. Complete this process at least 3 times for each particular muscle.
PNF stretching came from the development of a rehabilitation tool. Therefore it is extremely effective. An excellent exercise for targeting specific muscle groups. It will increase flexibility and range of movement. It also improves your muscular strength.
To perform and isometric stretch, assume the position of the passive stretch and then contract the stretched muscle for 10-15 seconds. Make sure you restrict the movement of the limb. Then relax the muscle for at least 20 seconds. This procedure should be repeated 4-5 times.
Isometric stretching is a form of passive stretching similar to PNF. The contractions are held for a longer period of time. Do not perform these with children or adolescents who are still growing as isometric stretching places high demands on the stretched muscles. Other recommendations include allowing 48 hours’ rest between isometric stretching sessions and performing only one stretch exercise per muscle per session.
Stretches that are performed with movement are termed “dynamic stretches“. In other words, the individual uses a swinging or bouncing motion to extend their range of movement and flexibility. Listed below are 4 different types of dynamic stretching exercises.
Ballistic stretching is an outdated form of stretching. One that uses momentum generated by rapid swinging, bouncing and rebounding movements to force a body part pasts its normal range of movement.
The risks associated with ballistic stretching far outweigh the gains. Especially when you can achieve better gains by using other forms like dynamic and PNF stretching. Other than potential injury, the main disadvantage of ballistic stretching is that it fails to allow the stretched muscles time to adapt to the stretched position. Instead, it may cause the muscles to tighten up by repeatedly triggering the stretch reflex.
Unlike ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching uses controlled, soft motions. These move a particular body part to the limit of it’s range of movement. The force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled.
Dynamic stretching is slow, gentle and very purposeful. At no time during the stretch should you force the body part past the joint’s normal range of movement.
Active Isolated stretching is a relatively new technique developed by Aaron L. Mattes. It is sometimes referred to as the “Mattes Method”. It works by contracting the antagonists, or opposing muscle group, which forces the stretched muscle group to relax. You first stretch the chosen muscle group and then assume the appropriate starting position. You then actively contract the opposing muscle, move into the stretch quickly and smoothly. Hold for 1-2 seconds and then release the stretch. Repeat this 5-10 times.
These are forms of dynamic stretching that both contract and lengthen a muscle at the same time. They work by stretching the muscle group through it’s entire range of motion while under contraction. For this reason, both resistance and loaded stretching are as much about strengthening a muscle group as they are about stretching it.
Olympic swimmer Dara Torres credits a portion of her swimming success to the use of resistance stretching. However, these forms of stretching place high demands on the musculoskeletal system. Therefore they are recommended only for professional or well-conditioned athletes.
Basic Rules for Safe Stretching…
As with most activities, there are rules and guidelines to follow that protect you. Stretching is no exception – it can be dangerous and harmful if done incorrectly. Adhering to the following rules is vitally important. Both for safety and for maximising the potential benefits of stretching;
- There is no such thing as a good or bad stretch.
- The specific requirements of the individual are what is important.
- Warm up prior to stretching.
- Stretch before and after exercise.
- Only push to the point of tension.
- Stretch all major muscles and their opposing muscle groups.
- Make sure you move gently and slowly.
- Breathe deeply and easily while stretching.
The Common Misconception…
Confusion about what stretching accomplishes as part of the warm-up procedure is causing many to abandon stretching altogether. The key to understanding the role stretching plays can be found in the previous sentence – but you have to read it carefully.
Stretching… as part of the warm-up!
Here is the key: stretching is a critical part of the warm-up, but it is not the warm-up.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that doing a few stretches constitutes a warm-up. An effective warm-up has a number of very important key elements. These work together to minimise the likelihood of sports injury and prepare the individual for physical activity.
Identifying the components of an effective and safe warm-up, and executing them in the correct order, is critical. Remember, stretching is only one part of an effective warm-up. It’s place in the warm-up procedure is specific and dependent on the other components.
The 4 key elements should cover the following;
1. The General Warm-up – Elevate the heart rate, increase the blood flow and increase the muscle temperature.
2. Static Stretching – Gradually lengthening the muscles of all the major muscle groups and associated soft tissues of the body.
3. The Specific Warm-up – Drills and exercises that prepare you for the specific demands of your chosen sport or training.
4. Dynamic Stretching – Controlled, soft bounce or swinging motion to move a particular body part. Gradually increase the range of motion as you warm up.
So what have we learnt? Well stretching is beneficial when used correctly. Remember, stretching is just one very important component that assists in reducing the risk of injury and improving athletic performance. Achieve the best results when you use stretching in combination with other injury reduction techniques and conditioning exercises.
It is also of paramount importance that you work at your own level. Make sure you learn from those more advanced than you, but you do not compare your flexibility to theirs. With consistency and discipline to stretching you will achieve the results that you are looking for. Results that will stay with you for the rest of your life, providing you stick close to your stretching companion.