The Importance of Stretching

Stretching, flexibility, when to stretch, stretches
Stretching is just as important for a well-rounded fitness routine as strength and cardio work.

If you want to learn about the basic foundation of stretching and how to do it safely and effectively, continue reading...

As a dancer, I grew up stretching every day, but once I stopped dancing, I also stopped stretching and up until recently, I rarely stretched much.  I would usually only stretch if I was feeling sore after a hard training session.  I started to notice the more exercise I did and the stronger I became, the tighter my muscles also became.  I started to find it hard doing certain exercises because my flexibility would limit me through my range of motion. Not only that, I would bend the wrong way to pick up things because I could only reach down a certain amount due to the lack of flexibility in my hamstrings.  I have since begun stretching more and have already noticed a big difference in how limber I feel.

Over the years, information on stretching has changed as new studies and research has emerged.  For decades, static stretching (which requires holding a stretch for 10 or more seconds while motionless) was the most popular type of warm-up for athletes. Now it is known that static stretching shouldn't be done whilst cold, dynamic stretching (moving continuously through the stretch) is now thought to be the most highly effective method of stretching before training or playing sports.

I decided to write this article to help educate you on how taking a few minutes out of your day to stretch can benefit you!  Being flexible and limber is extremely important, not just in the gym, but also in every day life.

Before we begin, keep in mind that there are several important factors that can affect your flexibility.  The first is age: flexibility increases through adolescence up until the age of 20, after which it gradually decreases over time.  As you age, your muscles tighten and range of motion in the joints may be minimized. The second is gender: women are generally more flexible than men. The third and the one that I will focus on today is activity: people who remain active throughout their lives will generally be more supple than those who are sedentary.

Benefits of stretching?

  • Increased range of movement in the joints

  • Increased performance capabilities in sports

  • Reduction of muscle soreness after exercise

  • Improvement and maintenance of posture (reduces lower back problems)

  • Reduces chance of injury, muscle strains and pulled muscles

  • Enhanced muscular coordination

  • Relaxation and relief from aches and pains from sitting too long

  • Increased circulation of the blood to various parts of the body

  • Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)

What is flexibility?

Flexibility is defined as the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. Flexibility is specific to each joint, therefore having “good flexibility" implies that you have good range of motion in all of your joints, not just one. Thankfully, flexibility is highly adaptable and will increase with regular activity and stretching, however flexibility also has quick reversibility and decreases without activity.  Flexibility and range of motion is extremely important to any sort of physical activity, especially in terms of skill-related fitness. E.g. A runner who has tight hamstrings will have restricted flexion in the hip joint, resulting in shorter stride length. Regardless of whether you are running competitively or to stay fit, increased flexibility in the hamstrings and other leg muscles will increase your speed and reduce the amount of energy used whilst running.  For general well being, how easily, smoothly and painlessly you can bend, reach and twist turn depends on how flexible your body is.

So why are we not all flexible?

What makes us unable to bend over and touch our toes or tie our legs into a pretzel? There are six main structural limitations: 1) Bone: Bone can restrict the endpoint in range of motion, mostly due to past injury. 2) Fat: It gets in the way of limbs moving. 3) Skin: Skin may restrict range of motion if there is old scar tissue. 4) Muscle: Muscles are highly elastic. It is possible to increase the amount a muscle can be stretched. 5) Tendons: Though not nearly as supple as muscles, tendons may also stretch. 6) Ligaments: They have very limited flexibility, but are majorly affected by long periods of inactivity and injury.

When is the right time to stretch?

Stretching is not beneficial before you exercise. Static stretching should never be the first part of your workout. Stretching cold, rested muscles can actually cause more harm than good and puts you at a greater risk of pulling a muscle. This is why having a short cardio warm up or doing dynamic stretches are recommended before exercising.  If you plan on stretching on a non-training day, aim to do about 5-8 minutes of light aerobic exercise and dynamic stretching, then followed by a proper stretch.  The best time to stretch is when you have completed your workout; your muscles are warm and loosened up. Stretching at this stage is crucial so before you hit the shower, spend 10 minutes stretching!

Main types of stretching:

Static Stretching: This is an effective method of stretching that involves gradually stretching a muscle by placing it in a maximal stretch position and holding that position for 10-20 seconds. This is the safest method of stretching, particularly for untrained or sedentary people, however this type of stretching shouldn't only be performed when the muscles are warmed up prior.

Ballistic Stretching: This involves short, bouncing movements such as touching your toes in rapid succession. Because the bouncing movements may be greater than the muscle’s extensibility, injury may occur, and caution is absolutely necessary. I personally would not recommend this type, unless you are an experienced athlete.

Dynamic stretching: Meaning you are moving as you stretch, requires the use of continuous movement patterns that mimic the exercise or sport to be performed.  Generally speaking, the purpose of dynamic stretching is to improve flexibility for a given sport or activity.  Dynamic stretching improves range of motion and body awareness.  Warming up in motion enhances muscular performance and power. Studies reveal dynamic stretching before a workout can help you lift more weight and increase overall athletic performance compared to no stretching or static stretching.

PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation): This is the most effective method of stretching to improve flexibility, but requires the use of a partner. PNF involves a series of pushing and relaxing movements by you and your partner. Using a hamstring stretch as an example, you would lie on your back with your leg extended and your partner would push against your leg until you feel slight discomfort in your muscle. At this point you would push against your partner’s resistance by contracting the hamstring. After 10 seconds of this, you would relax your muscle, and your partner would apply even more pressure for another 10 seconds. This push-relax technique should be repeated at least 3 times. You will find each time you relax into the stretch, your leg is able to stretch further each time.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

-It is recommended that your stretch at minimum 2-3 days a week to maintain your flexibility or 5-6 days a week for best results.

-When stretching, your intensity is very important. You should create a stretch that causes mild discomfort in the muscle surrounding the joint being stretched.  Do not stretch so hard that it causes pain.

-Perform 2-3 repetitions of each stretch, holding each stretch for 15-20 seconds.

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