This week, our special guest bloggers, Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC, authors of 100 Questions and Answers about Sports Nutrition & Exercise, offer expert tips on stretching.
Regular stretching is an important part of physical fitness yet it is often omitted during workouts. Stretching is imperative to maintain flexibility (the range of motion one has in their joints) and is an essential component of all physical activities.
One’s flexibility is influenced by factors such as:
- Age- The joints and surrounding connective tissues become more rigid and lose much of their elasticity as we age. This results in greater stiffness and decreased range of motion.
- Gender- Women tend to have more flexibility than men most likely due to structural, anatomical and hormonal differences.
- Activity level- Physical activity that stresses the joints with greater ranges of motion help maintain flexibility thus active individuals have greater flexibility than less active individuals.
- Joint and tissue structure- there are inherent joint and tissue structure differences (joint capsules, tendons, ligaments and skin) between individuals that result in varying levels of flexibility. Certain individuals are endowed with higher elasticity and plasticity components to their connective tissue, making them inherently more flexible.
To improve flexibility, two stretching techniques are recommended: active stretching and passive stretching. An active stretch occurs when an individual applies the force for the stretch. For example, during the seated hamstring and lower back stretch, the individual would lean his or her upper torso down toward the lower torso, and upon meeting significant resistance would hold the stretch for a few seconds and then relax. On the other hand, the passive stretch requires the assistance of a person or device to apply the force for the stretch. Using the same example of the seated hamstring stretch, a person would apply pressure on the back of the individual to help push the upper torso down.
Stretching can be further subdivided into static, dynamic and ballistic stretching.
- Static stretching is often referred to as the stretch-hold technique. The individual begins a stretch by moving the joint and muscle through the range of motion until the stretch sensation is felt in the belly of the muscle. The stretch is then held for 20 to 30 seconds followed by a relaxation period for a few seconds. The stretch is then repeated for an additional two repetitions with the goal of increasing the range of motion each time. The individual should always try to avoid stretching the muscle too intensely, as this could lead to injury. Static stretching is a very effective method for increasing flexibility, easy to learn and is generally considered to be safe.
- Dynamic stretching is a method of stretching using activity-specific movements to increase flexibility. This type of stretching helps prepare individuals for the movement patterns of their activity by stretching the involved muscles, tendons and joints. For example, a baseball pitcher could use stretch bands to simulate their throwing technique while increasing the intensity and range of motion during each successive throw. This stretching technique has an added advantage of developing both flexibility and strength concurrently.
- Ballistic stretching is often referred to as the bounce technique. The stretching movement is generally done rapidly without a hold (bouncing) at the end of each successive stretch. The muscle is stretched quickly and returned to its original position rapidly, and then stretched again. Ballistic stretching has the potential to cause harm and should be avoided. During ballistic stretching, the muscle is never allowed to relax causing a stretch reflex in the muscle (shortening), which leads to a tightening. An example of a typical ballistic stretch is the standing toe touch. During this technique, the individual stands with the legs slightly apart and tries to touch the toes by continuously bouncing up and down in rapid succession.
Flexibility is most effectively attained during the warm-up and cool-down periods of exercise. Prior to exercise, it is recommended that a general dynamic warm-up that involves the entire body (such as jumping jacks, fast walking with arm swings, light cycling) be completed for a few minutes to warm the muscles. When the muscles are warm, five to ten minutes of stretching can help reduce injury, increase joint range of motion and increase performance through increased elasticity of muscles and tendons. Post-exercise (cool-down), stretching the warm muscles allows the elastic components within the muscles and tendons to be more easily stretched. Warm muscles are able to stretch to greater lengths than cold muscles. To improve this capacity, stretching should be done when the muscles and tendons are warm and most receptive to being stretched.
Stretching is a simple way to maintain flexibility, increase physical fitness, reduce injuries and improve performance. Flexibility can be acquired quickly and can be maintained with incorporating just three stretching sessions per week. Persons of all ages and athletic abilities can improve their health by increasing their flexibility with stretching.
More information can be found in 100 Questions and Answers About Sports Nutrition and Exercise by Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC.
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