You have no doubt been told by someone at some stage that you should always stretch before doing any exercise. But why, you may ask. You don’t sweat or lose weight or build muscle from stretching, so why do it? Well, stretching is actually a crucial element in physical fitness and performance.
The first important point is that stretching should be done before and after exercise, as part of a warm up and cool down. Stretching before exercise assists in reducing the risk of injury. Stretching after exercise helps maintain increased flexibility of muscles and helps to reduce muscular pain and stiffness following exercise. Remember: never stretch a cold muscle, so do a gentle warm up such as a walk or light jog and then stretch before starting any strenuous exercise.
Secondly, people of all ages should stretch on a regular basis. With age, we lose flexibility, resulting in muscular pain and joint stiffness. This can affect one’s ability to perform various activities, from regular daily activities like reaching into high cupboards to specific sporting activities like moving across a tennis court.
When stretching, one should feel slight discomfort, not pain. Overstretching a muscle beyond its limits can cause damage to the tissue. The range of movement at a joint, or this point of slight discomfort, will increase as flexibility improves with regular stretching. Every joint is unique and flexibility will vary depending on the joint, activity levels and types of activities performed on a regular basis.
Muscle tightness is often associated with numerous orthopaedic conditions, such as lower back pain, neck pain or knee pain, amongst others. By carefully stretching tight structures and strengthening weak ones surrounding a joint, symptoms can be alleviated, often with immediate, but temporary relief. By performing appropriate stretching and strengthening exercise on a regular basis, more permanent relief can be achieved.
There are various types of stretching techniques that can be used to improve flexibility. The most common is static stretching. Here, a muscles is taken to the end of its range (slight discomfort) and held for about 15 seconds while the muscle is completely relaxed. Static stretching is most effective after exercise to reduce muscle pain and stiffness.
Dynamic stretching involves the individual moving his/her own leg through its range. As the muscle warms up, the individual can swing the limb further and further through its range, never taking it more than the point of slight discomfort. Dynamic stretching is most commonly used prior to strenuous exercise.
Ballistic stretching is a slightly more risky technique, as it involves taking the muscle to its end range and gently bouncing the limb at this range. This technique is generally not advised, unless done under careful supervision of a Biokineticist.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a highly effective form of
stretching, performed with the assistance of a therapist. It involves a contraction of the muscle to be stretched, which is held for about three seconds against the resistance of the therapist. The contraction is then released and the therapist pushes the limb slightly further.
Active-isolated stretching is another highly effective technique to improve flexibility while reducing the risk of injury. This technique must also be performed by a trained therapist. The individual contracts the opposite muscle those being stretched, thus assisting the therapist in moving the limb through its full range. By contracting the opposite muscle, one ensures that the muscle to be stretched is completely relaxed, thus reducing the risk of injury. This technique is particularly effective in more apprehensive patients who find it difficult to relax when being stretched.
Finally, stretching provides a great form of relaxation and stress relief. So, whether you are young or old, active or sedentary, you need to stretch to reduce the risk of injury, maintain joint mobility and keep the body moving with ease and minimal pain.