Stretching and Flexibility
Flexibility is the ability to move your joints through a normal range of motion. We all inherit certain characteristics of our joints and muscle attachments, which determine our potential range of motion.
This sometimes leads to frustration among individuals who compare themselves to more flexible peers or established "norms". Rather than dwell on individual differences, it is more productive to focus on the following concepts:
In the large majority of joint movements, an unrestricted or enhanced range of motion is associated with a reduced risk of injury for an individual, regardless of innate ability;
Almost everyone who follows a consistent stretching program will improve his or her range of motion;
Stretching will help offset the detrimental decrease in range of motion due to repetitive overuse, inactivity, and aging.
The immediate benefits of a proper stretching program are a decreased risk of injury from sudden forceful movements and decreased muscle and joint soreness and stiffness following exercise. Good flexibility is necessary to maintain correct posture, which helps protect against back problems.
Coordination can be improved when flexibility increases, which can enhance job and athletic performance. When done properly, an extended stretching session can be a relaxing and cathartic experience, which can have a positive effect on overall health. However, achieving extreme levels of flexibility in some joints, can result in unsafe joint instability, and should be avoided.
Stretching to improve range of motion should always be done after an adequate warm-up. Using stretching as a warm-up, when the muscles are cold, increases discomfort and is not as effective. A five minute warm-up of light calisthenics or cardiovascular exercise will raise muscle temperature, increase blood flow, and allow the stretched muscle to relax and elongate more effectively and with less discomfort. Warm, moist heating pads, or a brief warm water bath are other effective ways to increase muscle temperature. When exercising outdoors, wear loose fitting, warm clothes during the warm-up and stretching, which can be removed as the workout intensifies.
Breathing should be slow, rhythmic, and under control. Do not hold your breath while stretching. If bending forward, exhale while bending, then breathe slowly as you hold the stretch. If a stretch position inhibits your normal breathing, ease up on the stretch to allow normal breathing.
Types of Stretching
Static stretching refers to a slow, gradual, and controlled stretch through a full range of motion. This is a steady-intensity, long duration technique. Static stretching can be performed at two levels of intensity.
The easy Stretch
At the beginning of a stretch, ease into a movement so that you feel a mild tension. Hold this level for 10-30 seconds and concentrate on relaxing. The feeling of tension should gradually subside as your muscles relax. If it does not, ease off slightly and find a degree of tension that is comfortable. The easy stretch reduces muscular tightness and readies the muscles for the developmental stretch.
The Developmental Stretch
After the easy stretch, gently move a fraction of an inch further until you again feel a mild tension. Hold for 10-30 seconds. The tension should diminish. If not, ease off to a comfortable level of tension. The developmental stretch fine-tunes the muscles and increases flexibility.
Ballistic or dynamic stretching involves bouncing movements in which the end point is not held. After a thorough warm-up of the involved musculature, ballistic stretching should be performed in a rhythmic movement that mimics a specific job or sport skill (e.g., swinging an ax, sledgehammer, baseball bat, or golf club). Ballistic stretching may promote dynamic flexibility and decrease injury potential for these high-speed activities. Initially, movements should be small and gradually increased to larger ranges of motion.
PROPRIOCEPTIVE NEUROMUSCULAR FACILITATION
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is an advanced stretching technique that employs alternating muscular contraction-relaxation protocols. PNF stretching can be very effective in improving joint range of motion and can also provide modest gains in strength. They are commonly used to help restore normal range of motion and strength following injury. However, most PNF exercises require the use of a knowledgeable and experienced partner.
Stretching should be done daily, before and after activity. It can also be done in short breaks throughout the day. Often, there is a limited time for exercise and stretching adequately is often neglected in favor of weight training or cardiovascular training. When this is the case, it is important to always do an adequate warm-up, proceed to an abbreviated stretching routine, emphasizing the specific muscles soon to be used, then easing into a workout of low-to-moderate intensity. Stretching between sets of weight training or during short breaks while running can be helpful. Additionally, a comprehensive, uninterrupted stretching routine of at least 20 minutes, at least twice a week, is needed to maintain good flexibility, with more needed for significant improvement.
Stretching should never be performed past the point of mild tension or discomfort. Discomfort may be more noticeable at the start of a program, but should become less prominent with subsequent sessions. Muscles should feel relaxed and loose following stretching, not sore or stiff. However, care must be taken to allow adequate recovery from all exercise routines, and to avoid "over-stretching", or attempting to "stretch-out" minor injuries. In general, light stretching can help the healing process of many musculoskeletal injuries, but aggressive stretching can be traumatic and aggravate the injury. In the case of injury rehabilitation, it is important to follow the specific recommendations of a qualified exercise specialist or medical professional.
Recent research has indicated that aggressive developmental stretching may cause minor muscle trauma, similar to weight lifting, which requires a period of recovery. Therefore, aggressive developmental stretching to increase range of motion should not be done prior to a challenging strength training, cardiovascular workout or sports activity. A less aggressive warm-up and stretching regimen is recommended prior to these workouts, and aggressive developmental stretching is best done afterward or during a separate exercise session.