Stretching has always been associated with fitness and sports programs. It is one of the basic fitness components, along with muscular strength and endurance, optimal body composition, cardiovascular efficiency and endurance, and balance. It seems to be the part of the workout that gym goers are all too happy to skip at the end of a workout. Although very valuable if done properly, there are also some risks associated with improper stretching. One of the myths long associated with stretching is that it should be performed prior to starting a work out; i.e. ‘cold stretching’. We have all seen television shows in which a character wakes up one morning and decides to start running. Headband on, arms overhead, knees locked and a few quick bounces to each side…ouch! The potential result of this type of stretch sounds painful, for sure. Stretches are actually best performed after the body has had sufficient time, about eight to ten minutes, to warm up with some cardiovascular movement. This warm-up may be done in one of many forms, for example: walking, marching, or light aerobic activity. With the heart pumping, the blood circulating, and the tendons warming, this is the time to do the body some good. The purposes of pre-workout stretches are to help prepare the body for exercise and help reduce the risk of injury. There is still debate over the importance of a pre-workout stretch, but even without the physiological benefits, stretching serves as wake up for the body and a welcome shift into a workout.
As the New Year begins and enthusiastic resolution-makers hit the gym, members performing ballistic stretching are sure to be seen in some centers. Not only is it ineffective, it’s not very safe. Ballistic movements are those that are forcefully executed, such as vigorous bouncing into a seated leg stretch or repetitive pulsing to one side, as in a standing side stretch. The preferred method is called static stretching. Static stretching can be preceded by slow stretching or rhythmic limbering Rhythmic limbering is a term used often in group fitness classes and refers to the gradual lengthening of a muscle group using slow and often large motions. Rhythmic limbering increases muscle core temperature and prepares the joints and muscles for the movement to come later, as in a dance, conditioning or step class. After the body is warmed, and limbered, static stretches are ready to be performed. This type of movement is sustained, supported and controlled. It also allows the muscles being stretched to relax and elongate, therefore maximizing length.
Just as static stretching is done prior to exercise, but after the body is warm, post-work-out stretching has a place in an exercise program as well. The difference between the ‘pre-‘ and ‘post’ stretch is the length of time the stretches are held and the benefits of each. Whereas the stretching done before an exercise should be between 10-15 seconds, holding static stretches at the end of class or exercise session, while the body temperature is elevated, provides a great opportunity to increase flexibility. These stretches can be held 15-30 seconds. Flexibility can be defined as the range of movement at each joint. Each exhale should allow for a little more length and relaxation of the muscle or muscles being stretched.
While stretching is available in some form to everyone, it is important to realize that many factors determine and influence our flexibility. Our own bone structure and connective tissue is determined by genetic inheritance and will vary from person to person. Gender and age are both contributing factors in flexibility. A woman will have a wider pelvis than a man, allowing a deeper stretch, and there is a decrease in mobility and an increase in connective tissue stiffening as one matures. Lifestyle and past athletic history may also contribute to one’s flexibility.
Keeping it Safe: Here are some basic guidelines to follow while stretching:
- A variety of stretches should be performed to effectively increase flexibility in all joints.
- Be aware of body alignment while stretching; do not place any awkward tension on any joints.
- Continue to breathe slowly while holding the stretch.
- Incorporate stretching exercise into your fitness program 3-5 days per week.
- Perform stretches when the body is warm; after a warm up or as a cool down
- Stretch until the point of mild to moderate tension, avoiding pain or discomfort.
*Some other forms of stretching include AI (active isolated), CR (contract-relax), and PNF (proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation). Ask your certified personal trainer or group fitness instructor to show you some new stretches to increase joint flexibility, reduce risk of injury and provide an all over feeling of wellness.