by Pat Valentine, HAC Elite Personal Trainer
Many of us neglect stretching as a piece of the fitness puzzle – if that includes you, it may come as a shock to learn that regular stretching is equally as important as regular exercise. That’s right! The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching daily if not two to three times a week to improve general flexibility. The importance of stretching can’t be emphasized enough. Generally, the more you stretch, the better you feel. Let’s delve into the why’s, when’s, and how’s of stretching to get a better understanding of its importance.
Stretching is an important aspect of daily living, from which you will greatly benefit by performing throughout the day. When we age, the muscles and tendons in our body can become tighter, and the range of motion in our joints may become decreased. This lack of flexibility can lead to injuries, lack of mobility in activities of everyday life, and muscle soreness. With a lack of flexibility comes poor posture, which can lead to stiffness, muscle soreness, and back pain as well.
While some studies contradict each other on just how much stretching helps, one thing they all seem to show is that stretching improves flexibility. Flexibility has multiple benefits. When flexible, our bodies become more durable (resistant to injuries) and we see an increase in range of motion, improvement in sport-specific training and weight training, and increased blood flow to our muscles. Increased blood flow provides more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, reducing stiffness, soreness, and fatigue and resulting in the ability to exercise that muscle again within a shorter timeframe.
One of the big questions about stretching is, “when should I stretch?” Is it better to stretch before or after a workout? There isn’t a clear answer as to which is better for the body; rather, stretching provides benefits when done before and after a workout and shouldn’t be limited to one time or the other.
To start off, let’s not consider stretching to be a warm-up in and of itself. In fact, even before stretching, you should warm-up the muscles, increasing your heart rate and blood flow to prevent injury. Stretching after you warm-up is an appropriate time; make sure to focus on the whole body, stretching all the major muscle groups. Stretching after a workout aids in preventing muscle soreness and can be performed on targeted muscle groups or the whole body. Dynamic stretching has been shown to be better than static stretching.
It is recommended that you hold a stretch for 30-60 seconds while maintaining a normal breathing cycle. Breathing is an important aspect of stretching – emphasis should be placed both on the inhale and the exhale. When inhaling, it is important to statically hold a stretch and get a full, deep breath. Deep, full breaths versus quick, short breaths increase the amount of oxygenated blood to the working muscles. During the inhalation period of the stretch, you are, in fact, stretching the muscles by expanding them as the oxygenated blood goes to the working muscles. During the exhale is when you should go further into the stretch, extending the push or pull on your muscle a little beyond what you’re already doing. Repeat this cycle of breathing for the full 30-60 seconds.
Methods of Stretching
There are five main types of stretching: static, dynamic, active, passive, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Static stretching is when you perform a stretch and hold it at that point for a specific time period and repeat. Static stretching is typically held for 30 -60 seconds and is best performed after a workout. Active stretching uses only bodyweight to perform the stretch, whereas passive stretching uses an outside force. Passive stretching is like static stretching but requires a partner – you are in a relaxed position while your partner puts you into the stretch, providing resistance.
Dynamic stretching, unlike the other types, is more like a warm-up, where you perform the stretch similar to the event in which you are about to take part. Dynamic stretching is the recommended type of stretch to perform before an event because it is less fatiguing on the muscle than that of static or passive stretching. During dynamic stretching, you are increasing your range of motion while gradually increasing the speed of each stretch.
The last type of stretch, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), requires a partner to perform. PNF involves stretching and contracting the desired muscle group. Antagonistic pairs of muscles are sets of muscles that act in opposition to one another. For example, in order to contract the bicep, you must relax the tricep and vice versa. Using the PNF method, the give and take of the antagonistic pair will work to create a deeper and more effective stretch.
This type of stretching involves an isometric contraction of the agonist muscle followed by a brief period of relaxation and back into the contraction. An example of this would be a straight leg raise, where you stretch your leg straight up into the air as far as you can. When you complete this, your partner then provides a little more pressure on the contraction for about 3-5 seconds and then removes the pressure. When they remove the pressure, you will go further into the stretch on your own. This cycle is repeated 2-3 times to complete the set of the stretch.
The Stretching Cage
The stretching cage in the Stretching Area is a great resource for static stretching after a warm-up or at the end of a workout. The big benefit to the stretching cage is its multi-functionality – its unique design caters to many different stretching positions. Plus, it’s easy to use and offers ten stretch examples – here are just a few:
Grab the outside of the cage with both hands at shoulder height. Lean forward while holding onto the cage to stretch out the shoulders. Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds and repeat for three sets.
Calf Stretch: Facing either side of the cage, place a foot on the downslope surface and one on the upslope. Lean into the front foot to stretch the calf. Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds for three sets, alternating each leg.
Knee to Chest Stretch:
Step into the cage, and grab a middle bar for support. Feet shoulder-width apart, sink your glutes backward and down towards your calves. Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds and repeat for three sets.
Trunk Stretch: Facing outward, grab the top of the cage. While holding onto the top of the cage, let your glutes sink down towards the ground. Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds and repeat for three sets.