Stretching, though often overlooked, plays a vital role in keeping muscles and joints strong and pliable so they are less susceptible to injury. That’s why its such an important part of warming up before physical activity and cooling down after.
Spending a few minutes a day doing slow, deliberate stretches can also help you manage stress more effectively giving you a chance to momentarily shut off outside stress, and focus, physically and mentally, on your activity.
Books and articles describing specific stretches abound. A good routine should work each of the major muscle groups, and needn’t take long. Five to 10 minutes is all you need. Be sure to scan the Rules to Stretch By before you begin.
RULES TO STRETCH BY:
- Warm up first: warm muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more flexible and stretch more easily; stretching cold muscles can cause tears.
- Stretches should always be gradual and gentle.
- Hold each stretch in a static position for 10 to 20 seconds, allowing the muscle to lengthen slowly.
- Do not bounce; bouncing actually causes muscle fibers to shorten, not lengthen.
Stretch only to the point of resistance; if the stretch hurts, you´re pushing too hard.
- Don´t rush through the stretching routine; use it to prepare yourself mentally and physically for activity.
Stretching is useful for both injury prevention and injury treatment. For the purposes of this discussion I will concentrate on prevention. If done properly, stretching increases flexibility and this directly translates into reduced risk of injury. The reason is that a muscle/tendon group with a greater range of motion passively, will be less likely to experience tears when used actively. Stretching is also thought to improve recovery and may enhance athletic performance. The latter has not been fully agreed upon in the medical literature, but improved biomechanical efficiency has been suggested as an explanation. Additionally, increased flexibility of the neck, shoulders and upper back may improve respiratory function.
How to Stretch
There are three methods of stretching: static, ballistic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Static is the method recommended for the majority of athletes since it is the least likely to cause injury. Ballistic (bouncing) and PNF stretching are probably best reserved for a select few who are experienced with their use. To get the most benefit from your static stretching routine while minimizing injury, stretching should be done after warm-up exercises. The increased blood flow to the muscles aids in the flexibility gains from stretching and is an important component for injury prevention. Static stretching is done by slowly moving a joint towards its end-range of motion. A gentle “pulling” sensation should be felt in the desired muscle. This position is then held for 15 – 20 seconds. Do not stretch to the point of pain and do not bounce since this may cause injury to the muscle. Within a session, each subsequent stretch of a particular muscle group seems to give progressively more flexibility. A set of 3 to 5 stretches is probably sufficient to get the maximum out of the routine. Alternate between agonist and antagonist muscle groups (example: quadriceps and hamstrings), and alternate sides. It is also a good idea to start with the neck and progress down to the feet. This enables you to take advantage of gains in flexibility from the previously stretched muscle groups. Stretching should also be done after the workout. The post-workout stretch is thought to aid in recovery. Cold packs can be applied to sore areas in those of you who are recovering from injuries.
Why am I So Tight?
There is considerable variation in baseline flexibility between individuals. There may also be variation within a given individual (example: flexible shoulders but inflexible hips, or flexible right hamstring, but tight, inflexible left hamstring). Genetics, injuries, and abnormal biomechanics all play a role in these differences. One shouldn’t try to make big gains in flexibility in a short period of time. Stretching should be done gradually over a long period of time and then maintained to prevent slipping back towards inflexibility. Some people will enthusiastically embark on a stretching program, but then quit two weeks later because they haven’t seen any benefit. Be patient and consistent. It takes a long time.
*Helpful Resource: See our Stretching Exercise Guides for detailed photos and instructions for over 40 different stretching exercises!
It is very important to relax during the stretching routine. It should not be a rushed event. Don’t think about your job and don’t look at others working out. The “I’ve got to hurry up and do this so I can go” attitude is counterproductive. This is a time to slow your breathing and to free your mind. Some athletes will employ mental imagery while stretching. In this relaxed state, the athlete visualizes proper form in preparation for training or competition.
If you have any back, neck, bone or joint problems consult your doctor before beginning a stretching program. No stretching routine should be painful. Pain indicates either incorrect technique or a medical problem. If in doubt, ask a qualified health professional. The following are some examples of good stretches.
Basic Stretching Exercises
These exercises stretch the muscles in the leg and back that are tight. Maintaining flexible muscles in the legs and back is desirable as it allows the muscles and joints to work more efficiently and decreases the frequency of muscle injuries.
Starting position: Sit lengthwise along a table and place your right leg on the table. Rest your left leg on the floor or on a footstool.
Action: Lean forward over your right leg until you feel a stretch behind your knee and in your calf. Hold that position by grasping the right leg. Repeat with the left leg.
Note: Stretch the calves by pointing your toes upward and toward your chest.
Starting position: Stand 2-3 feet away from a wall. Put your hands against the wall at about shoulder level to support your weight (Fig. 2A).
Action: Lean in toward the wall by bending your elbows until you feel a stretch in the back of your calves (Fig. 2B). Keep your body erect, your knees straight, and your hips forward. DO NOT bend at the waist. Make sure your heels remain on the ground. Alternate foot position by turning the feet outward, stretching, then inward, and repeating the stretch. If you run a great deal, do this repeatedly throughout the day. To increase stretch, a book can be placed under the “ball” of the foot, letting the heels hang down.
Starting position: Stand with one arm holding onto a chair or wall.
Action: With the free hand, grasp the instep of the foot and pull the heel behind you toward your buttocks. KEEP YOUR KNEE BACK. Do not let it come forward.
Note: You should be standing erect throughout the entire stretch. DO NOT LEAN FORWARD. If you can touch your heel to your buttocks, slightly extend your back while doing this exercise.
Starting Position: Sit on the floor. Place the soles of your feet together and bring them about two feet away from your body.
Action: Place your hands on your knees and gently push downward toward the floor. SLOWLY bend forward, trying to touch your nose to your feet.
Iliotibial Band and Lateral Thigh
Starting Position: Sit comfortably on the floor with your legs out in front.
Action: With your left leg straight, put your right foot flat on the ground on the opposite side of your left knee. Reach over your right leg with your left arm so that your elbow is on the outside of your right leg. Slowly turn your head and look over your right shoulder and, at the same time, turn your upper body toward the right ann. Keep your hips flat on the floor at all times. Repeat on the opposite side.
Note: If you do not feel a stretch, bend your left knee, placing your left foot next to the right hip. The more you run, the more you need to do this stretch.
Starting position: Stand next to a chair and place your left foot flat on the seat. Hold onto the chair for balance.
Action: Keeping the left foot flat, lean over the chair until you feel a stretch in the back of the left calf.