This month’s Small Step is all about becoming and staying flexible. But, why should we stretch and what’s the best way to do it? Here’s the scoop on stretching.
It’s easy to understand 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). Two types of amino acids, or proteins, provide the necessary properties of rigidity and elasticity to ligaments and tendons:
- Collagen gives tissue rigidity. Rigidity lends strength and keeps the tissue from being over-stretched.
- Elastin, as the name suggests, allows for elasticity, making it possible for a joint or muscle to achieve full range of motion.
Collagen and elastin also reside in other tissue throughout the body performing the same duties. But, when you consider the roles of 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 exercise put above-normal strain on ligaments and tendons. Long-distance endurance training and sports that require quick bursts of lateral movements or repetitive, explosive motions all have high incidents of ligament and tendon injury. Examples run the gamut from nagging chronic pain, as in tendinitis, or acute injury like a tear. Torn MCLs and ACLs (ligaments around the knees) seem to occur on a weekly basis to professional athletes. But ligament and tendon health isn’t a concern only for athletes.
Unexpected challenges for our tendons and ligaments occur throughout our days: turn an ankle on an uneven surface, suddenly reach and pull to save a toddler from danger, work task or chore requiring long periods of repetitive movement. Any one of these can lead to a torn or strained ligament or tendon if we don’t have enough collagen and elastin.
But that’s not all, the aging process breaks down elastin and collagen. It’s unavoidable. As we age, if we aren’t training to re-build elastin and collagen, range of motion becomes compromised leading to muscle imbalances and dysfunctional movement. This chain reaction eventually leads to muscle tightness, joint stiffness, pain, falls and, sometimes, injury.
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 static stretches are pictured throughout this post.
- Never stretch when your muscles are cold, such as first thing in the morning or before a workout.
- Stretch after every type of workout or physically demanding activity when muscles, ligaments and tendons are warm and 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’s tight, it can be helpful to stretch them prior to a workout. In those cases, you should always do a 5-10 minute warm-up before stretching.
- Stretch especially tight muscles twice after completion of a workout.
Dynamic Stretching puts muscles and joints through a full range of motion in preparation for explosive power movements. Softball, 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 warm-up before performing dynamic stretches.
- If you’ll 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.
I offer a 30 minute “Strength & Stretch” small group class, via live two-way video streaming, through GymGo every Thursday at 9am EST (8am CST, 7am MST & 6am PST). Designed specifically for beginners, it will leave you feeling strong and rejuvenated. All you need is a non-slip surface and a desire to improve your health and well-being. Click here to connect to my GymGo profile page. From there, you can set up an account (or log in if you already have one), go to my workout sessions and register to reserve your slot in my class.
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