Stretching is one of the most important tools in anyone’s physical health. It’s up there with good nutrition and a good workout regime. One of the great things about stretching however is that it is totally free! You don’t have to have any kit or go anywhere outside of your own home to have a good stretching regime. This is not true of good nutrition or most good workout regimes.
There is an awful lot than can and has been written about stretching. What i want to do here is simply give a few pointers of some of the common mistakes i see when i get my clients to stretch and to answer some of their most common questions. What i will also do straight away is to point you to one of the best resources books on the subject which is a book called “The Anatomy of Stretching” by Brad Walker. This is a magnificent book with a whole raft of great stretches for every part of the body which can be picked up on Amazon for very little money. This is now in it’s second edition but the first edition still has all that you will need. Another good resource to take a look at is for the hip flexors. With the hips and pelvis being pivotal between the legs/feet and the upper body understanding how to stretch here is key.
My first point is that EVERYBODY NEEDS TO STRETCH!
This is very important, it’s not just athletes who need to stretch, they just need to stretch more often and for longer! The reason for this is that no muscle in your body can un-contract itself once it has contracted. The ratcheting together of the Actin and Myosin filaments in your muscles that collectively produce a contraction is a one way event! The only way this happens is by a) muscles that provide the opposite motion (called the Antagonist muscle) contracting and so stretching out the original muscle. An example of this is your Triceps contracting to stretch out the Biceps on that contracted first on the other side of your arm. b) You stretching your body to regain some of the length and function of your muscles and so also the range of motion of your joints. c) Your therapist stretching you.
Some muscles will get stretched during normal movement more easily than others. Those that are fan shaped, the Gluteals and the Pectoral muscles for instance will not be stretched so well by regular movement. In addition the postural muscles, those that keep us upright against the effect of gravity will tend to become shortened where as the doing or movement muscles will tend to weaken and lengthen. This is why we all need to stretch to combat these problems.
How Often Should I Stretch?
Based on what i have just said we all need to stretch daily at least in an ideal world. If that doesn’t seem possible then try at least 4 times a week. You don’t have to make a big song and dance about it as you can stretch whilst watching the news or listening to the radio. Or some stretches will work whilst you are brushing your teeth or in the shower for instance. If you are an athlete or a committed exercise person then you will need to stretch two or three times daily to combat what you are putting back into your body through your high levels of activity.
One other very important point i would like to make here is DO NOT think that stretching is a quick magic bullet activity. Treat it the same way you would do with getting fit. You don’t get fit in a couple of weeks and that is the same for stretching. It is something that will gradually show it’s worth after a few weeks. Even as a therapist as i intensively work on a client using muscle energy technique (MET) stretches i will take a couple of weeks to add length to a muscle group. So when stretching on your own some muscle groups will require up to three months of good stretching to reap the benefits but, it will be worth it in the end!
How Long Should I Stretch for?
Each stretch should be held for at least 20-30 seconds. Preferably 40-60 seconds. This is because it takes at least 10 seconds for the muscles to start to stretch and to lengthen. Once again the length and repetition of your stretches will depend upon your activity level. So if you are a beginner do each 3 times each and if more advanced move this up to 5 sets each muscle group. A beginner may stretch for 10 minutes a day but a,professional athlete may stretch for up to two hours daily. Linford Christie said he used to warm up and stretch for 2 hours before a 10 second race!
What Should my Stretch Feel Like?
This is a very important question! Stretching IS NOT meant to be painful. It is not like pushing yourself in the gym. I tend to find that it is my more macho male clients who feel that they need to push a stretch until they are hurting a little or have a burn going on! NO!
There is a very good reason for this. If you stretch to the point of pain you WILL NOT be doing anything. This is because the painfully stretched muscle will have activated a defense mechanism called a Stretch Reflex. This reflex is there to prevent damage to the muscles, tendons and joints and it is mediated by bodies in your muscles called Muscle Spindles. If you are stretched to the point of pain these muscles spindles will be firing high frequency nervous signals to your spinal cord which will then make the muscle actually contract against the stretch to try to prevent the perceived overstretch injury. It will reverse the stretch in other words.
Stretching should be pleasurable and relaxing and performed whilst breathing slowly and deeply. This will help to deliver the Oxygen and nutrients our muscles need whilst reducing the tension in our muscles. You should slowly and gently stretch to the starting point of muscle tension with no jerking or bouncing. Once at this initial point you should wait and relax until you feel your muscle start to release then you should slowly extend the stretch to a similar tension level to the start of the stretch.
Do Not Stretch Any Muscle Group that is Not 100% Healthy.
Avoid that area entirely and concentrate on recovery and rehabilitation for it before returning to stretching. This process will be governed and guided by your therapist. Also do not stretch any joint that has any unresolved Sprain or Strain issues (damage to either the Tendons or the Ligaments). again your therapist should be in charge of your recovery and rehabilitation process here first.
Warm up to Stretch.
Never stretch when cold or straight after jumping out of bed! Your muscles and tendons need to be warm before effective stretching can be attempted. Without this you may actually injure your muscles/tendons. So, 3-5 minutes at least of brisk walking or jogging to raise the heart and respiratory levels should performed first.
Stretch Before and After Exercise.
Stretching before exercise, but after a gentle warm up as described above, helps to prevent injury. Stretching afterwards helps to aid the repair and and recovery of the muscles and tendons by putting the length back into them. This also helps to prevent delayed muscle soreness and tightness that usually follows hard exercise.
Dynamic stretches are more effective before exercise such as the one in the figure. Shown here with a kettle bell but simply twisting without this will be effective.
After exercise your stretching should be part of your warm down and should include more static or passive stretches. a static stretch is what most people think of as a stretch and is performed without movement where the muscle is slowly moved into a position of increased tension (an example of this is top figure above). A Passive stretch similar to a static stretch but is performed by another person. This usually takes you a bit further than a static stretch and so care is needed and should be performed by either your trainer or your therapist.
Stretch all your Major Muscle groups and their Antagonists.
Make sure you stretch all the major groups, trunk, arms, legs etc regardless of what sport you are doing. They will all have a role to play even if they are not directly involved e.g. the legs in running, the trunk and arms help to stabilize you.
Also stretch both sides of your body parts e.g. your quads and your hamstrings or your triceps and biceps etc.
There are a number of other types of stretches and interesting points to say. I will leave those more advanced things until a later blog