While consistent stretching is a vital component of a complete exercise program, it is often the most neglected. Fitness enthusiasts who are looking to improve their health, more than realize the benefits of regular exercise, but their adherence to a complete flexibility routine may surprise you.
Why is it that stretching has developed such a “Bum Rap”? Some exercisers report that they just don’t have the time to stretch. Others are simply uneducated as to the benefits that can be derived from a carefully planned, consistently followed flexibility routine. Whatever the case, the bottom line is that everyone can, and should institute some form of flexibility training, not only into their exercise routines, but into their daily lives as well.
I know what you’re thinking, “What can stretching do for me, I’m not an athlete?” The sooner you realize that stretching is not exclusively designated for those only involved in competitive sports or professional athletics, the better.
It’s no secret that we all have muscles and those muscles primary function is to pull the skeleton in such a way as to generate movement. Realize that the only movement that muscles are capable of is pulling, or contracting. When you bend your elbow for example, the biceps muscles in the front of the arm contract, or shorten in order to bring the forearm up. The antagonistic muscles in the back of the arm (triceps) relax to a degree and begin to lengthen allowing elbow flexion to take place. All body movement occurs in this way. As you can see, any movement that is initiated by the human body is performed through contraction (shortening), or pulling of muscles. So, to make a long physiology lesson short, all of this contraction, shortening and movement can leave your muscles feeling tight and your Range of Motion (ROM) limited.
Flexibility exercises help your muscles recover, in a sense from normal, everyday activity. In addition, if you are physically active, flexibility training becomes even more vital.
Aside from the obvious, there are other benefits. Here’s more food for thought:
Stretching increases Range of Motion (ROM)
ROM refers to the degree of motion that is present in each joint of the body. Injury, age and physical inactivity all can have an effect on the ROM of general and specific joint flexibility. By stretching carefully and consistently, joint ROM can be maintained and even increased as we age.
As far as the athlete is concerned, a greater ROM can translate to greater force production and a decreased incidence of mobility related injury.
Stretching stimulates circulation
The stress placed on the muscles by flexibility related exercise helps to elongate and provide greater blood flow to the artery and capillary systems. Greater blood flow translates to better oxygen and nutrient transport, more efficient waste management and greater healing potential. Increased circulation also helps to nourish the important connective tissues of the body.
Stretching helps relieve soreness and tightness following activity
Because stretching has the ability to increase circulation and blood flow to muscles and connective tissues, it has an additional effect on post exercise muscle soreness. When we exercise the muscle produces a waste product called lactic acid. As hard as the body tries to rid itself of LA, there is always some left circulating in the bloodstream that eventually settles back into the muscular system. These leftover lactic acids in combination with microscopic muscle damage brought on by overload stress, are believed to be the primary causes of muscle soreness and tightness that we experience following exercise. By instituting flexibility training after your workout, the improved circulatory response assists the body in reducing the amount of lactic acid that is left over. Additionally, the increased blood flow can also help to more quickly nourish those muscle cells damaged during intense bouts of exercise.
Stretching after a workout doesn’t necessarily mean that you will never be sore again, but it does go a long way in reducing the magnitude and duration to which muscle soreness occurs.
Stretching relieves tension
To sum it all up, stretching feels good if it is performed properly and safely. Its ability to decrease muscle tightness, improve circulation and provide the body with a fresh, invigorating feeling, can help you in dealing with the normal, everyday stresses that are encountered in everyday living. In addition, stretching can also help relax your mind and assist you in focusing on tasks that lay ahead.
How to Stretch
Several guidelines should be followed in order to help you stretch safely and effectively. A good point to remember is that like any other fitness-related endeavor, stretching is an individual activity and is not a competition with someone else. As always, consult your physician before beginning this or any exercise program.
Stretch at least once a day
You can maybe even stretch a few times. Most people find that stretching in the morning, mid day and again before retiring not only helps increase flexibility, but also relieves tension accumulated throughout the workday.
Stretching at work is not near as inconvenient as it seems, as soon as you realize that you don’t have to devote a lot of time to it. Develop a modified version of your flexibility routine that you can perform easily at your desk or workspace. Save the more involved stretches for when you have more room and privacy. Remember, in order for you to be consistent with any routine, it must be specific to your needs as well. You should gauge stretching appropriateness based on your personal situation, specific location, and time availability.
Never stretch a cold muscle
Whenever possible, perform a 5-10 minute warm-up prior to stretching. Activities such as walking, light jogging, cycling and calisthenics all qualify as a general warm-up. The warm-up increases core and muscular temperature as well as circulation. This increase in temperature will allow you to stretch the muscle more easily and with greater safety.
Imagine the muscle as a string of licorice. When cold, the licorice is more likely to snap when stretched. Apply heat, and the licorice string is easily manipulated into a long strand. The same theory applies to your muscles.
Bouncing while stretching (Ballistic Stretching) can easily cause muscular and/or joint injury. When you attempt to increase ROM by bouncing, it becomes possible for the muscle to be overstretched – that is, stretched past its individual limit. Always be sure to stretch slowly and smoothly. All movements performed while stretching should be deliberate, slow and under complete control.
Air is a good thing so concentrate in inhaling and exhaling normally while stretching. The best method to use in order to help your muscles relax is to inhale before stretching and exhale slowly as you stretch. DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH!
If you are experiencing difficulty breathing during certain stretches, ease up a little. Chances are that you are stretching too hard.
Hold and Repeat
Each stretch should be held anywhere from 10-15 seconds. In addition, you should repeat each exercise 3-5 times. By repeating a stretch a few times you’ll find that the muscle will allow you to stretch a little further on each repetition.
Comfort is the key
The old saying, “No pain, No gain”, does NOT apply to stretching. For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet – pain is a signal that something is wrong. If you experience pain while stretching, you’re pushing too hard. Stop, breathe, relax and progress gradually.
Use good technique
Contact a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (C.S.C.S.) to gain knowledge related to the proper technique of each stretch. They will be more than happy to answer any questions that you have regarding aspects of your fitness program. In addition, these individuals will be able to suggest flexibility exercises that are specific to your individual need. Stretches performed improperly can do more harm than good. Learn from a professional and practice perfectly.
Stretch your entire body
As I mentioned earlier, flexibility is specific to each joint of the body. This means, for example, that just because you may posses a significant amount of flexibility in your shoulders, your hamstring flexibility may be limited. As a result, it is important that you stretch all muscles of the body in order to ensure adequate and complete muscular/joint flexibility. The goal is TOTAL body flexibility, not just improving on the areas that you are already good at. Realize that some parts of the body may require additional time and effort, so be patient.
Stretching can free the mind and put you into a relaxed state, but this won’t happen if you’re straining and fighting against your body. Stretching too hard only makes it harder for your body and mind to relax, not to mention setting yourself up for an injury. Learn to make stretching a pleasant experience for both your physical and mental self. Relax, progress gradually and don’t become discouraged. Over time, you will get better.
Flexibility training should be approached in the same way as any other fitness component, in a planned, specific and systematically progressive manner. While you may never become as flexible as Jean-Claude Van Damme or Keri Strug, you can make significant improvement with a balanced and consistent flexibility program.