Stretching is a part of fitness and exercise which is often neglected. Many people find it difficult to find the time to exercise, and stretching just seems to take up precious minutes which could be used on the cross trainer, lifting weights, or out running.
Before performing any exercise, it is important to stretch out the main muscle groups that you will be using – this applies to playing football, running, weight training, circuit training or yoga.
Warming up the muscles will make them more pliable and less susceptible to injury. Stretching done after exercise helps to dissipate the waste products that build up in the muscles, as well as lactic acid, and it is generally accepted that this helps to reduce soreness.
After a fitness training session the muscles are still warm, therefore it is a good time to work on improving flexibility. Some strengthening exercises can actually cause the muscles to shorten which will restrict their range of motion, which in turn reduces flexibility.
In order to maintain or improve flexibility in the joints as well as reduce the risk of injury, it is important to include a stretching routine into any workout. A good stretching routine should use a combination of stretching and relaxation.
Static Stretching is Best
The correct way to stretch is known as the static stretching method. This involved stretching as far as is comfortable, and holding that position for a set count (usually 10-20 seconds) and then releasing. A common mistake people make when stretching unsupervised is to move into the stretch quickly and then bounce in an attempt to stretch the muscles and joints further than possible by just using their body weight or by gently pulling.
It is beneficial and advisable to stretch at least once every day, even on rest days. It is not advisable to stretch first thing in the morning without having warmed up first. Develop a routine for stretching everyday. For your routine, either start at the head and neck and move down, or start with the feet and ankles and move up. Do not keep jumping all over the body when stretching.
10 Rules of Stretching
- Before starting a stretch, ensure that your are in the correct start position.
- While stretching, keep you breathing natural, and do not hold your breath. Stretching does not require the same effort as weight lifting, and applying too much effort could lead to injury.
- Always come out of the stretch slowly.
- In standing stretches, joints should always be in alignment, i.e. shoulders above hips, hips above knees and knees above ankles.
- Never bounce. Bouncing can cause unnatural elasticity in the muscles which can lead to injury.
- Never ask a friend or partner to push a stretch further, unless under the guidance of a qualified instructor. Many martial artists will push stretches further, with good results, but an untrained partner could do more damage than good. Communication and trust is essential when aiding stretching.
- A stretch should be held for at least 10 seconds when warming up and for at least 20 seconds when cooling down, or working on improving flexibility.
- While stretching, relax, stay in control, and breathe easy. If you cannot breathe easily, you are putting too much effort into stretching.
- Stretch each muscle group only once per each stretch session. Do not go back to work on muscles again, as they may have cooled down by the time you are ready to repeat a stretch.
- Do not do spot stretching, but instead take a full body approach to stretching and ensure that all the major muscle groups are stretched.
When to Avoid Stretching
- If you experience a loss of function or a reduction in the range of motion, do not stretch, as this could indicate an injury.
- If you have had a recent injury or sprain, do no stretch, as this can aggravate the problem.
- If you feel a sharp pain during stretching then stop.
- If you have had any recent fractures, do not stretch until your doctor has advised that it is safe to do so.
- If a bone blocks the motion, do not stretch.
If in any doubt about stretching, then speak with your doctor or a qualified fitness instructor.
Stretching – Upper Body
Should We Stretch Before Exercise?
Kieran O’Sullivan, a sports scientist, has determined that stretching before you exercise could increase the chance of injury, and not decrease risk as previously thought. Static stretching before you have thoroughly warmed up causes muscles to tighten up which is the opposite of what you want before you exercise.
The research comes from the University of Limerick in Ireland. Kieran O’Sullivan is a physiotherapist with an MSc. in Manipulative Therapy, and is a member of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists.
He says that we have developed this idea of stretching before exercising which is totally wrong and goes against our physiology. Stretching is still essential for flexibility, but it should be done at the end of a workout or before bed when you are not going to be doing any other activities.
This is not the first time however that scientists have advised us not to stretch before exercise. Other studies in recent years have also found that stretching before playing sports actually makes us slower and weaker.
Also studies have shown that stretching before exercise does not help prevent injury during exercise. It is simply a widespread myth that it helps that has been promoted by fitness instructors and personal trainers simply because they were told it was a good idea.
The best preparation before exercise or play sports is to perform light movements specific to your activity, such as kicking a ball, swinging a gold club or lifting empty weight training bars.
The best types of stretches are the ones that are performed in yoga or tai chi. Static stretches, such as bending over to touch your toes, are not as effective as moving stretches.
Not warming up properly is something younger people can get away with for a while, but for adults a good warm up is vital to prevent injury. It can also boost performance and burns more energy, so warming up is as much about pushing yourself harder as preventing a torn muscle. There are three main parts to a good warm-up.
1. Ready Your Spine
The first stage of a good warmup should be to ready your spine. The spine is part of the body that is both the most neglected and the most damaged. The spine is our main shock absorber, and therefore must be prepared. Three simple exercises help warm the back up and help improve alignment;
- Shoulder rolling (forwards and backwards)
- Stretching upwards with the hands interlocked while look yuo through the gap between the forearms
- Performing a standing spinal twist by bringing a knee across your body and holding it in place with the opposite hand
2. Fire up the Respiratory System
Stage two of the warm up is the fire up the respiratory system. Quick breathing relseases more hormones, which consumes more carbohydrates and fat for eneregy. The best way to fire up the respiratory system is with some non-weight bearing exercise, performed at a medium to high intensity. A cross trainer (elliptical), exercise bike or tradmill are ideal ways.
3. Warm Up The Muscles
The final stage is to warm up the muscles and stretch the fibres. Most people jump straight to this stage, but as Kieran O’Sullivan points out, a cardio warmup helps to prevent injury and improves flexibility.
Simple stretches suffice, such as calf stretches and touching your toes. Do groin stretches and hurdle stretches for the legs. Some squats and lunges help warm up the ankle, knee and hip joints. For the arms stretching the arms behind the back, then across the chest one at a time, then by raising the elbow upwards in front of you and gently pushing back. A quick wrist stretch and loosener (shake) is also advisable if you will be using your hands a lot (martial arts, racquet sports etc.).
A warm up does not add much time to your workout, and can boost you performance, give your more energy and help keep you in the gym by avoiding injury. Skipping your warm up is not recommended. Skipping is!
“The effect of warm-up, static stretching and dynamic stretching on hamstring flexibility in previously injured subjects” by Kieran O’Sullivan, Elaine Murray and David Sainsbury. Published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2009, 10:37doi:10.1186/1471-2474-10-37