This month’s Small Step is all about becoming flexible and staying flexible. But why do we need to stretch? And, when and how should we stretch? Fortunately, the reasons are clear and the rules are simple. Here’s the scoop on stretching.
It’s easy to understand that cardiovascular training improves the health of our cardiovascular system and strength training builds muscle and bone. But was does flexibility training do?
There are two other parts of our musculoskeletal system that neither cardio nor strength training addresses – our ligaments (connecting bone to bone at the joints) and tendons (connecting muscle to bone). There are two types of amino acids, or proteins, that provide the necessary properties of rigidity and elasticity to ligaments and tendons. Collagen is what gives these tissues rigidity. Rigidity lends strength and keeps the tissue from being over-stretched. Elastin allows for elasticity, making it possible for a joint or muscle to achieve full range of motion. Collagen and elastin also reside in muscle tissue performing the same duties. But, when you consider the roles of the tendons and ligaments, you can understand how vital both rigidity and elasticity are to them. Only flexibility training assists in the regeneration of elastin and collagen in ligaments and tendons.
Some forms of training and sports put above-normal strain on ligaments and tendons. Long-distance endurance training and field and court sports that require quick bursts of lateral movements or repetitive, explosive swinging or throwing motions all have high incidents of ligament and tendon injury. But ligament and tendon health isn’t a concern only for competitive athletes.
Many unexpected challenges for our tendons and ligaments occur throughout our days: turn an ankle, try a new move at Spin class, suddenly reach out to save a toddler from danger, lift a grocery bag that’s heavier than it looks. Any one of these mishaps can lead to a torn ligament or strained tendon if we don’t have enough collagen and elasticity in them.
But that’s not all, the aging process breaks down elastin and collagen. It is unavoidable. As we get older, if we aren’t specifically training to re-build our elastin and collagen, range of motion in our muscles and joints becomes compromised leading to muscle imbalances and dysfunctional movement. This chain reaction eventually leads to muscle tightness, joint stiffness, pain and, sometimes, injury.
When To Stretch
It’s a myth that one should stretch before working out. In fact, multiple studies over several decades have proven not only that there’s no benefit to stretching so-called cold muscles before working out but some of these studies indicate that pre-workout stretching, without a preceding warm-up, may impede performance and raise risk for injury. For the same reasons, it’s not recommended that one stretch immediately after getting out of bed in the morning.
Therefore, flexibility training should be done at the conclusion of every cardio and strength training workout. In addition, stretching can be done prior to exercise or a sports event but only after a proper warm-up is completed. Flexibility-based workouts, such as yoga classes, should be formatted with simple poses done in conjunction with movement and breathing to properly warm the body before more challenging poses are incorporated.
How To Stretch
Static Stretching: Static stretching is the extension and hold of a specific muscle or muscle group to the point of tension but without pain. The stretch should be held for 20-30 seconds for 1 or 2 repetitions. Examples of common static stretches are the seated toe touch, overhead triceps stretch and the cobra.
- Never stretch when your muscles are cold.
- Stretch at the conclusion of every cardio and strength training workout when muscles, ligaments and tendons are warm and more pliable.
- The more muscle groups you stretch, the better.
- If you have limited time to stretch, prioritize by stretching all the muscles that were specifically involved in your workout.
- If you have a particular muscle group that is tight, it can be helpful to stretch them prior to beginning a workout. In those cases, you should always do a 5-10 minute warm-up before stretching prior to exercise.
- Stretch especially tight muscles twice after completion of a workout.
Dynamic Stretching: If you play a recreational sport, you should incorporate dynamic stretching before a game or match. Dynamic stretches put muscles and joints through a full range of motion in preparation for explosive power movements. Downhill skiing, pick-up basketball, tennis and golf are just a few examples of common recreational activities that should be preceded by dynamic stretching. Examples of dynamic stretching are a swimmer wind-milling arms before a race, a sprinter high-stepping prior to getting into the blocks, or a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat while on deck.
- Do a quick warm up before performing dynamic stretches.
- If you will be doing a combination of static and dynamic stretching before your activity, do the warm up first, static stretches next, dynamic stretches last.
- Always perform static stretches for all major muscle groups at the conclusion of the activity.
The bonus is, in addition to protecting against injury, some studies show regular flexibility training can alleviate arthritis pain, reduce stress and anxiety and promote overall feelings of well-being. All in all, not a bad deal in exchange for a relatively small investment in time and energy.