When to stretch?
Stretching needs to be as important as the rest of our training. If we are involved in any competitive type of sport or exercise then it is crucial that we make time for specific stretching workouts. Set time aside to work on muscle groups that are tight or especially important for your particular sport. The more involved and committed we are to exercise and fitness, the more time and effort we will need to commit to stretching.
As discussed in chapter 5 it is important to stretch both before and after exercise, but when else should we stretch? Stretch periodically throughout the entire day. It is a great way to stay loose and to help ease the stress of everyday life. One of the most productive ways to utilize time is to stretch while watching television. Start with five minutes of marching or jogging on the spot then take a seat on the floor in front of the television and start stretching.
Competition is a time when great demands are placed on the body; therefore it is vitally important that we are in peak physical condition. Flexibility should be at its best just before competition. Too many injuries are caused by the sudden exertion that is needed for competitive sport. Get strict on stretching before competition.
What type of stretching?
Choosing the right type of stretching for the right purpose will make a big difference to the effectiveness of any flexibility training program. To follow are some suggestions for when to use the different types of stretches.
For warming up, dynamic stretching is the most effective, while for cooling down, static, passive and PNF stretching are best. For improving range of motion, try PNF and Active Isolated stretching, and for injury rehabilitation, a combination of PNF, Isometric and Active stretching will give the best results.
Hold, Count, Repeat
For how long should we hold each stretch? How often should we stretch? For how long should we stretch?
These are the most commonly asked questions when discussing the topic of stretching. Although there are conflicting responses to these questions, it is my professional opinion, that through a study of research literature and personal experience, I believe what follows is currently the most correct and beneficial information.
The question that causes the most conflict is: For how long should I hold each stretch? For Static and Passive stretching, some text will say that as little as ten seconds is enough. This is a bare minimum. Ten seconds is only just enough time for the muscles to relax and start to lengthen. For any real improvement to flexibility, each stretch should be held for at least twenty to thirty seconds.
The time committed to stretching should be relative to the level of involvement in our particular sport. So, for people looking to increase their general level of health and fitness, a minimum of about twenty seconds will be enough. However, if involved in high level competitive sport we need to hold each stretch for at least thirty seconds and start to extend that to sixty seconds and beyond.
How often should I stretch? The same principle of adjusting the level of commitment to the level of involvement in our sport applies to the number of times we should stretch each muscle group. For example, the beginner should stretch each muscle group two to three times. However, if involved at a more advanced level, we should stretch each muscle group three to five times.
For how long should I stretch? The same principle applies. For the beginner, about five to ten minutes is enough, and for the professional athlete, anything up to two hours. If we are somewhere between the beginner and professional adjust the time spent stretching accordingly.
Do not be impatient with stretching. Nobody can get fit in a couple of weeks, so do not expect miracles from a stretching routine. Looking long term, some muscle groups may need a minimum of three months of regular stretching to see any real improvement. So stick with it, it is well worth the effort.
When starting a stretching program it is a good idea to start with a general range of stretches for the entire body, instead of just a select few. The idea of this is to reduce overall muscle tension and to increase the mobility of the joints and limbs.
The next step should be to increase overall flexibility by starting to extend the muscles beyond their normal range of motion. Following this; work on specific areas that are tight or important for your particular sport. Remember, all this takes time. This sequence of stretches may take up to three months to see real improvement, especially if we have no background in agility based activities or are heavily muscled.
Limited data exists on what order individual stretches should be done in. However, some researchers have suggested designing flexibility training programs that start with the core muscles of the stomach, sides, back and neck, and then work out to the extremities. Others have recommended starting with sitting stretches, because there is less chance of accidental injury while sitting, before moving on to standing stretches.
The exact order in which individual stretches are done is not the main point of emphasis; the main priority is to cover all the major muscle groups and their opposing muscles, and to work on those areas that are most tight or more important for your specific sport.
Once we have advanced beyond improving overall flexibility and are working on improving the range of motion of specific muscles, or muscle groups, it is important to isolate those muscles during the stretching routines. To do this, concentrate on only one muscle group at a time. For example, instead of trying to stretch both hamstrings at the same time, concentrate on only one at a time. Stretching this way will help to reduce the resistance from other supporting muscle groups.
Posture, or alignment, while stretching is one of the most neglected aspects of flexibility training. It is important to be aware of how crucial it can be to the overall benefits of stretching. Poor posture and incorrect alignment can cause imbalances in the muscles that can lead to injury. While proper posture will ensure that the targeted muscle group receives the best possible stretch.
In many instances one major muscle group can be made up of a number of different muscles. If posture is poor or incorrect certain stretching exercises may put more emphasis on one particular muscle within that muscle group, thus causing an imbalance that could lead to injury.
The picture on the right, for example, shows the difference between good posture and poor posture when stretching the hamstring muscles (the muscles at the back of the upper legs).
During this stretch it is important to keep both feet pointing straight up. Allowing the feet to fall to one side will put more emphasis on one particular part of the hamstrings, which could result in a muscle imbalance. Note the athlete on the left; feet upright and back relatively straight. The athlete on the right is at a greater risk of causing a muscular imbalance that may lead to injury.
How to use stretching as part of the warm-up
Lately, I have been receiving a lot of questions referring to recent studies and research findings about stretching. The most common question I receive concerns the role that stretching plays as part of the warm-up procedure.
Currently, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how and when stretching should be used as part of the warm-up, and some people are under the impression that stretching should be avoided altogether.
This is a very important issue and needs to be clarified immediately. The following information is provided to dispel some common myths and misconceptions about stretching and its role as part of the warm-up.
What has science got to say?
Most of the studies I have reviewed attempt to determine the short term, or one-off effects of stretching on injury prevention. This is a mistake in itself and shows a lack of understanding as to how stretching is used as part of a conditioning or injury prevention program.
Stretching and its effect on physical performance and injury prevention is something that just can not be measured scientifically. Sure we can measure the effect of stretching on flexibility with simple tests like the Sit and Reach Test , but then to determine how that effects athletic performance or injury susceptibility is very difficult, if not near impossible. One of the more recent studies on stretching supports this view by concluding; Due to the paucity, heterogeneity and poor quality of the available studies no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the value of stretching for reducing the risk of exercise-related injury.
To put the above quote in layman’s terms; there has not been enough studies done and the studies that have been done are not specific or consistent enough.
The greatest misconception
Confusion about what stretching accomplishes, as part of the warm-up procedure, is causing many to abandon stretching altogether. The key to understanding the role stretching plays can be found in the previous sentence; but you have to read it carefully.
Stretching, as part of the warm-up!
Here is the key: Stretching is a critical part of the warm-up, but stretching is NOT the warm-up.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that doing a few stretches constitutes a warm-up. An effective warm-up has a number of very important key elements, which all work together to minimize the likelihood of sports injury and prepare the individual for physical activity.
Identifying the components of an effective and safe warm-up, and executing them in the correct order is critical. Remember, stretching is only one part of an effective warm-up, and its place in the warm-up procedure is specific and dependant on the other components.
The four key elements that should be included to ensure an effective and complete warm-up are:
1. The general warm-up: This phase of the warm-up consists of 5 to 15 minutes of light physical activity. The aim here is to elevate the heart rate and respiratory rate, increase blood flow and increase muscle temperature.
2. Static stretching: Next, a few minutes of gentle static stretching should be incorporated into the general warm-up to gradually lengthen all the major muscle groups and associated soft tissues of the body.
3. The sports specific warm-up: During this phase of the warm-up, 10 to 15 minutes of sport specific drills and exercises should be used to prepare the athlete for the specific demands of their chosen sport.
4. Dynamic stretching: Lastly, the warm-up procedure should finish with a number of dynamic stretching exercises that mimic the common movements of the sport or activity to follow. For example, arm rotations for swimming, or swing kicks for running sports. Remember, the force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled.
All four parts are equally important and any one part should not be neglected or thought of as not necessary. All four elements work together to bring the body and mind to a physical peak, ensuring the athlete is prepared for the activity to come.
Please note the following points
1. Dynamic stretching carries with it an increased risk of injury if used incorrectly. Refer to chapter 4 for more information about dynamic stretching.
2. The time recommendations given in the above warm-up procedure relate specifically to the requirements of a serious athlete. Adjust the times accordingly if your athletic participation is not of a professional manner.
3. Recent studies have indicated that static stretching may have a negative effect on muscle contraction speed and therefore impair performance of athletes involved in sports requiring high levels of power and speed. It is for this reason that static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up procedure and is always followed by sports specific drills and dynamic stretching. Recent studies suggest no detrimental effects when static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up.
What conclusions can we make?
Stretching is beneficial, when used correctly. Remember, stretching is just one important component that assists to reduce the risk of injury and improve athletic performance. The best results are achieved when stretching is used in combination with other injury reduction techniques and conditioning exercises.