Stretching: Why, How and When?
By: Amanda Wilson, CPT
As most of us know, regular exercise is a key component in living a healthy lifestyle. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity for substantial health benefits. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018, pg 5) While regular exercise is definitely a key component in overall health, one aspect of exercise that is often overlooked is the importance of stretching.
Stretching plays an important role in a well rounded exercise routine. According to the Harvard Health Letter, “Stretching helps to keep the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to fully extend through their full range of motion. This will put you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.” As an example, sitting in a chair for long periods of time throughout the day can result in tight hamstrings in the back of the thigh. This muscle tightness creates an imbalance, and can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, which inhibits walking. Furthermore, when tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, such as playing tennis or catching yourself from falling, they may become damaged from suddenly being stretched. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints which can lead to joint injury (Harvard Health Publishing, 2015).
Maintenance of flexibility and range of motion are some of the reasons that stretching is important, some confusion still exists in regards to how to stretch, when to stretch, and how long to stretch. There are a number of different types of stretching, and with all the different techniques there are for improving flexibility, it can be difficult to understand when and how these different techniques should be executed. According to Acefitness.org;
Static Stretching: The most common type of stretching is called static stretching. This type of stretching is executed by extending the targeted muscle group to its maximum point and holding it for 30 seconds or more. There are two types of static stretches: Active, where added force is applied by the individual for greater intensity, and Passive, where added force is applied by an external force (e.g., partner or assistive device) to increase intensity
Dynamic Stretching: Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching 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. An example of dynamic stretching would be a sprinter doing long, exaggerated strides to prepare for a race.
Ballistic Stretching: This type of stretching is typically used for athletic drills and utilizes repeated bouncing movement to stretch the targeted muscle group. While these bouncing movements usually trigger the stretch reflex and may cause increased risk for injury, they can be safely performed if done from low-velocity to high-velocity and preceded by static stretching.
Active Isolated Stretching (AIS): This stretch technique is held for only two seconds at a time. It is performed repeatedly for several repetitions, each time exceeding the previous point of resistance by a few degrees. Much like a strength-training regimen, AIS is performed for several sets with a specific number of repetitions.
Myofascial Release: Through the use of a foam roller or similar device, myofascial release relieves tension and improves flexibility in the fascia (a densely woven specialized system of connective tissue that covers and unites all of the body’s compartments), and underlying muscle. Small, continuous back-and-forth movements are performed over an area of 2 to 6 inches for 30 to 60 seconds. The individual’s pain tolerance will determine the amount of pressure applied to the target area.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): This type of stretching capitalizes on the use of autogenic and reciprocal inhibition. PNF is a more advanced form of flexibility training, which involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle group being targeted.
Selecting the appropriate stretching regimen is dependent upon your individual goals, but in any case, it is important to make stretching a priority. Selecting the appropriate time to stretch is also an important variable. A common misconception is that stretching should happen prior to a workout. While there may be some truth to this idea, it is important to understand the importance of a warm-up prior to most types of stretching. This comes with the exception of dynamic stretching where we use movement to warm up the muscles, and slowly increase their range of motion. A warm-up is important as it prepares the body mentally and physically to perform the chosen activity more efficiently and with less risk of injury.
The best time to stretch is when the muscles are warm and flexible. This could be during a yoga or Pilates class, or just after exercise, or a warm up. A warm up typically consists of light aerobic movements, including dynamic stretching that mimics the movements of the activity you’re about to perform. The goal is to raise your heart rate and increase blood flow to your muscles which will make them less stiff and work more efficiently. According to Laughlin, (2014), “It is very important that you perform the general warm-up before you stretch. It is not a good idea to attempt to stretch before your muscles are warm (something which the general warm-up accomplishes). Moreover, warming up can do more than just loosen stiff muscles; when done properly, it can actually improve performance. On the other hand, an improper warm-up, or no warm-up at all, can greatly increase your risk of injury from engaging in athletic activities.”
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Edwards, M. (2012). Types of Stretching. Retrieved from Ace Fitness website: https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/2966/types-of-stretching
Harvard Health Publishing. (2015, May 20). The importance of stretching. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching
Laughlin, K. (2014). Stretching & Flexibility (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/tkd/stretch/stretching_5.html
NHS. (2018, April 30). Do I need to stretch before exercising? Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/stretch-before-exercising/
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd edition. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website: https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf