Stretching and flexibility
IntroYour need to stretch before you exercise, RIGHT! Well, maybe not. You know exercise is important, but what about stretching? Does stretching help or hinder your exercise routine?
Scientists don't fully understand what happens during a stretch. They know it will make you more flexible, but they don't know how it does it.
Some of the advantages of stretching
- It may improve your flexibility, and, consequently, the range of motion of your joints.
- It may help your muscles work most effectively and thus improve your athletic performance.
- It may decrease your risk of some injuries. This doesn't mean you can't get injured; it just means it may help prevent some injuries; although, it does nothing to prevent such things as an overuse injury. Increases blood flow to the muscles.
Some of the disadvantages of stretching
- Some research shows that stretching doesn't reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
- Florida State researchers have found that stretching before a run makes you about 5% less efficient.
- Italian researchers found that toe-touching exercises change the force-transmission properties of muscle fibers and alter brain signals to the muscle, reducing exercise efficiency by about 4%.
- Insufficient scientific evidence that pre-exercise stretching reduces injury risk.
How does stretching increase flexibilityIn June 2014, a study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a static-stretching regimen. So, why does stretching seem to increase flexibility?
We know that stretching doesn't make muscles permanently longer; if it did the muscle would lose power since it would not be able to contact as much. It may be that stretches train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension before it signals pain.
During a stretch, the muscle fibers and tendons (which attach the muscles to the bones) elongate; however, it is not sustained. The entire muscle complex can't get permanently longer. And if one likens muscle tissue to a rubber band, it would not be a good thing for the muscle to get permanently stretched out, as that would mean a decrease in its elasticity.
The nervous system determines how far a person can stretch. If a stretch doesn't feel safe for the muscle, its nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance. That's why a person under anesthesia can be stretched through a full range of motion with no resistance. Babies are born with full flexibility because their bodies haven't developed a blueprint for ranges of motion that feel unsafe.
With repeated stretches, the nervous system can be retained to be quiet at deeper levels of stretch, a process known as stretch tolerance. This makes it possible for you to flex a joint, more than you could before the training.
The body adapts to the movements you most frequently make or don’t make. Therefore, it must be trained to allow increased flexibility. Although studies have found that passive-training regimens do modestly increase flexibility, it may be more effective to do something called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), where people extend their muscles and then try to contract them from a lengthened position. A study published in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of Sports Medicine and Fitness found that gymnasts could increase their flexibility more after PNF stretching than after static stretches.
Before you start stretchingBefore you start into stretching, make sure you know how to do it safely and effectively. While you can stretch most anytime or anywhere, using the proper technique is essential. Stretching incorrectly can do more harm than good.
Tips on stretching safely:
- Don't consider it a warmup and don’t stretch before you are warmed up. You may injure yourself stretching cold muscles. Before stretching, warm up with some light, low-intensity activities for five to 10 minutes, such as jogging or running in place. You could also do a "dynamic warmup” where you perform movements like those used in your sport at a low level and gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up. Even better, stretch after your workout when your muscles are already warm.
- Consider skipping stretching before an intense activity, such as sparring. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching may weaken hamstring strength and decrease performance.
- Stretch the muscles and joints that you routinely use.
- Focus on major muscle groups. Concentrate your stretches on major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders.
- Strive for symmetry. Like most other physical characteristics, genetics has a large influence on flexibility. Instead of trying to be as flexible as a contortionist, focus on having equal flexibility on each side. Any flexibility that is not equal on both sides may increase your risk of injury.
- Don't bounce. Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle, and the muscle may sense the sudden movement as a threat to injury and contract to protect itself.
- Stretch and hold. Breathe normally and hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
- No gain when there’s pain. Expect to feel tension while stretching, but not pain. If it hurts, ease off until don't feel any pain, and then hold the stretch.
- Make stretches sport-specific. Some evidence suggests that it's helpful to do stretches involving the muscles used most in your sport or activity. One of my instructors was not very flexible overall, but the joints he needed for quick, powerful, high kicks were very flexible.
- Stretch regularly. Stretching can be time-consuming but you can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. Skipping regular stretching means you risk losing any gains, such as losing any increases in your range of motion you may have gained.
- Add movements to your stretching routine. Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises can also help reduce falls in older adults.
- Know when to stop. If you have a strained muscle, stretching it may cause further harm.