Stretches: you know about them, you are doing them, your doctor give them to you but actually what their actual benefits are, and how to do them properly seems to be a bit of a blurred area in common knowledge, with a lot of myths and misconceptions.
So here is an article that attempted to summarise and explain stretches; and hopefully will make everything a bit clearer to you:
Lets start with some definitions:
Static stretches: the ‘classical’ way of stretching, with no specific action. This is the dry, simple way of stretching a muscle, moving a limb to its full range of motion and hold it for a certain time.
Dynamic Stretches: this is a more functional way of stretching, involving repetitive movement and functional active movement; again bringing a limb to its full range of motion but repeating movements.
Ok now lets have a look at the common says and misconceptions on stretching:
- ‘Stretching prevents muscle aches’
Stretching has been found to NOT prevent aches; especially static stretching.
Although long thought to be caused by LACTIC ACID building up in your muscles, soreness post work out is now known to be caused by microtears in the muscle cells themselves. This happens when you work a muscle more than it is used to; if you repeat the activity several times, allowing the muscle to rest and recover in between, the muscle will gradually adapt and you will soon not feel sore anymore doing this same activity. (remember you first legs bums and tums class ladies?). This is called the ‘repeated bout effect’. And apparently if you increase the activity less than 10% you should not experience soreness too much, so quite a good way to increase your performance without suffering too much.
Stretches can be part of a warming up routine that would involve low intensity muscle action (at least it should), increasing blood flow to muscle tissue, which is known to reduce post workout muscle soreness or damage.
Methods that increased the blood flow to muscle include: massage, hot bath, sauna, low intensity muscle warm up
Past and Recent researches agree on its benefit in RECOVERING from aches. Dynamic and static stretches.
- ‘Stretching reduces the risk of injury’
Injuries are caused and predisposed by many different factors and isolated ‘stretching’ before an effort is not what keeps you from an injury.
Good stretching routine does not help in preventing overuse injury either.
As mentioned above, increased blood flow to muscle reduces risk of injury. Anyone is prone to injury, amateurs and athletes, and to minimize the risk of injury a nice and appropriate warm up is needed. This involves dynamic stretches (preferably, depending on the activity you are preparing for), functional movements and light cardio. And should last more 10 min at least!
- ‘Stretching makes muscle longer’
This a topic highly debated:
Is increased range of motion in a joint from stretching due to increase in muscle length or an increase in stretching tolerance?
- ‘Stretching improve athletic performance’
TRUE if they are appropriate for the activity
Dynamic stretches while warming up have been found to increase performance in activity involving jumping and running; so they are great for activities like involving floor impact like running, basketball, handball.
Static stretches have been found to be inefficient and even dangerous as a warm up for activities involving running and jumping as the muscle is losing its full strength capacity (it’s called ‘stretch induced strength loss’). However, as they are still increasing flexibility they are appropriate and more recommended before activities involving core and flexibility like ballet, dancing and gymnastics.
- ‘I am already flexible I do not need to stretch’
The nightmare of all osteopaths. Flexible does not always mean your muscles are not tight and noded. Some people, especially girls, have hyperflexibility in their joints, and if generalised in the body, it is called ‘benign hypermobile syndrome’. This is a tricky condition because people tend to think they are quite flexible when actually they are just very bendy. Not training properly and not stretching accurately will predispose to injury and muscular fatigue. (you can read more about hyperflexibility on my post here).
Regardless your joint flexibility you should always be aware of your muscle tone and balance. And if you are double jointed you might find yourself having to exercise a bit harder than the average to promote better support of your body and prevent pain and injury.
Summary and Recommendations:
- Stretching does not prevent injury
- Stretching enhances muscle power when using dynamic stretch; but if using static, muscle strenght can be impaired
- Stretching is needed before working out (dynamic preferably), FOLLOWED by a proper warm up of at least 10 minutes, involving functional movements and light cardio; in order to optimize muscle function
- Stretching is needed post working out (static preferably), and will help muscles to recover quicker, diminishing aches
- Do not confuse hyperflexibility in the joints with muscular flexibility, everyone needs stretching
- Stretching alongside physiotherapy or osteopathy helps recovering from injury (especially shoulder, back and knee)
- Be sensible in your stretching, learn to be aware of the different kind of pain, and listen to your body. ‘Pain’ does not mean you are doing it right all the time.
- Include variations in exercise stretch, feel where the stretch feels the strongest
- Bring movement and fluidity in your stretches.
- Stretch BOTH sides!
How long How often:
You cannot expect improving flexibility by just stretching irregularly and inconsistently.
You can achieve the most benefits from stretching by doing so at least 3 times per week. Think about it like any other type of exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching for most individuals that is preceded by an active warm-up, at least 2 to 3 days per week. Each stretch should be held 15-30 seconds and repeated 2 to 4 times. Older adults and people with decreased activity need longer stretches according to studies.
I generally advise my patients basic stretches inspired by yoga routine and rehabilitation exercise; but strongly advise them to find a good yoga class locally to them or to work, with less than 15 people and a good caring instructor. Usually after 2 months you should be able to get into a routine yourself and can apply the different poses and stretches at home. Most of my own stretch exercises are yoga based or strongly inspired from it.
Most of people nowadays need some core notion in order to improve their body awareness and prevent injury; hence alternating pilates and yoga classes is a nice (and highly recommended!) option.
Otherwise there are always nice stretches you can find on pinterest such as those basics ones on the picture.
“The impulse to stretch is built into the very pulse of life: it is the expansive moment, before the contraction, the filling before the emptying, the charge before the discharge. It is the child’s arms reaching for its mother, or the lover embracing her love. It is the legs stepping out into a walk, then a run. It is the propensity to go beyond where you have been, and once you have found comfort in that new place, to wriggle and move beyond that too. It is the wrapping of the heart around more, and the broadening of the mind past its own limits. Stretching will always have its place, and from the infinite creative potential it expresses, we will continually unfold.”
Gil Hedley – Doctor in Theological Ethics and Anatomy specialist