There are lots of myths about stretching and this is a blog about different types of stretching and the benefits.. or not
What does Stretching Do?
Stretching relaxes the muscles and allows for the nervous system to become comfortable in a broader range of motion. This will increase how far you can move within a given movement. Increased range of movement can occur at both joints and muscles.
Does Stretching Increase Range of Motion?
The most basic question that must be asked about stretching is whether it increases joint range of motion. The literature appears to confirm that stretching does increase range of motion in different muscle groups. Such increases in flexibility appear to last more than one day at least.
What happens when we stretch?
What exactly changes when we stretch is not well understood. Many believe this improvement is from a change in muscle tissue.
‘Various theories have been proposed to explain increases in muscle extensibility observed after intermittent stretching. Most of these theories advocate a mechanical increase in length of the stretched muscle. More recently, a sensory theory has been proposed suggesting instead that increases in muscle extensibility are due to a modification of sensation only. Studies that evaluated the biomechanical effect of stretching showed that muscle length does increase during stretch application due to the viscoelastic properties of muscle. However, this length increase is transient, its magnitude and duration being dependent upon the duration and type of stretching applied. Most of these studies suggest that increases in muscle extensibility observed after a single stretching session and after short-term (3- to 8-week) stretching programs are due to modified sensation. The biomechanical effects of long-term (>8 weeks) and chronic stretching programs have not yet been evaluated.’
Despite its fundamental role in rehabilitation, as well as sports and fitness, very little is actually known about muscle length: what constitutes optimal extensibility.
Importance of Good Range of Movement
Because the body was designed to move in a specific way, the importance of maintaining a good range of movement for each joint is desirable for optimal physical health. When joints and muscles are stiff, tight and tense, movement is restricted, and pain is increased.
Risk of injury is greater when joint flexibility is extremely low. A research study by Karen J. Wright and Carl De Cree published in the “Journal of Physical Therapy Science,” found that low flexibility in gymnasts was a predisposition to injury. Limited joint flexibility places a greater load on tight collagenous tissues and muscles, increasing their propensity to tear.
However, extremely high flexibility or muscular imbalance between two sides of the body can also increase potential injury. It is important to maintain an appropriate range of motion at each joint. Stretching too much and increasing ROM beyond what one can control can spell disaster so you must be sure to strength train your new ROMs as you achieve them.
There is a big misconception between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility is the range of motion that is available. Mobility is the range of motion you can control.
How much flexibility do I need?
It depends on your activity. The flexibility demands of a gymnast or a ballet dancer are clearly different to those of a runner. There is little to be gained for a jogger or runner from having the flexibility of a gymnast.
To generate power during exercise, the muscles and tendons store and release energy like a spring. Too much flexibility may reduce the muscle’s natural spring, which may be detrimental for activities involving running, jumping and sudden changes in direction, such as running, football or basketball.
On the other hand, too little flexibility may increase the risk of muscle strain injury, as the muscles are unable to lengthen and absorb this energy.
Other benefits of Stretching
Stretching does more than just elongate muscles and tendons. It also:
- Boosts blood flow through your tissues
- Increases oxygen levels
- Helps deliver nutrients to your muscles
- Facilitates the removal of metabolic waste such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, and uric acid
Types of Stretches
Static stretching is when you stretch and hold the muscle just beyond its normal range of motion. Each stretch is ideally held for 15 to 30 seconds at a time and is repeated until you’ve held the stretch for a total of one minute. Its primary purpose is to increase flexibility of the muscles and ligaments.
Dynamic stretching is the use of movement to stretch muscles before a workout or athletic competition. It relies on momentum to engage the muscles, rather than holding a stretch at a standstill. These stretches are generally used to prevent muscle strain and to safely allow for swift, powerful movements by athletes. It should be done in a smooth controlled manner.
Instrument assisted soft tissue mobilisation (IASTM) is a popular treatment for myofascial restriction. IASTM uses specially designed instruments to provide a mobilising effect to scar tissue and myofascial adhesions.
Examples :Foam Rolling , Massage Balls
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is a popular advanced method of deep stretching. It typically involves passively stretching a muscle (or muscle group), then performing an isometric contraction of that muscle while under stretch, and again passively stretching that same muscle group at a deeper stretch at a greater range of motion.
PNF is based on the principles of human anatomy and neurophysiology. Contracting a fully stretched muscle against resistance inhibits the stretch reflex and allows a muscle to stretch farther than it normally would.
Ballistic stretching is a form of stretching where you bounce or repeatedly push your body past its natural range of motion by using momentum, force, or gravity. It is explosive, jerky, bouncing beyond normal range of movement
So what are you trying to achieve when you stretch?
Research has shown that stretching may impact all the below to varying degrees:
- WILL increase range of motion and decrease stiffness and tension
- will SOMETIMES reduce pain and discomfort
- CAN warm up the muscles and improve sporting performance depending on what type of stretching
- WILL NOT prevent DOMS and may have the opposite effect (see DOMS blog)
- WILL NOT necessarily prevent injury
Should I stretch before exercising?
Your decision to stretch or not to stretch should be based on what you want to achieve. If the objective is to reduce injury, doing stretches before exercise has not been shown to be helpful. You are better to warm up your muscles with light aerobic movements, gradually increasing their intensity.
If your objective is to increase your range of motion so that you can more easily do the splits, and stretching is more beneficial than the small loss in force, then you should stretch.
Avoid static stretching before strength training, as this has been shown to be counterproductive. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, doing passive static stretches prior to lifting weights can make you feel weaker and less stable during your workout. Static stretching can also reduce strength in the period after stretching.
Should I stretch after exercising?
There is very limited evidence about specifically stretching after exercise. Since people tend not to set aside one time to stretch and one time for other activities, stretching after exercise can be a good time to do it. A post-exercise stretch will also slow down your breathing and heart rate and bring the mind and body back to a resting state.
However, there is a theory that stretching after weight training increases DOMS
There is some evidence that regular static stretching outside periods of exercise may increase power and speed and reduce injury.
Benefits of Types of Stretching
- Increases static flexibility but does not increase dynamic flexibility
- Has been shown to maximise stretch gained
- Shown to be more effective than dynamic stretching in muscular strain recovery
- Research has shown that dynamic stretching increases dynamic and static flexibility
- One of the main advantages of dynamic stretching is warming up the muscles to their working temperature, stretching them and therefore improving their function.
- Increasing nerve activity. Your nerves move muscles by sending electrical signals. By stretching dynamically, your nerves send the appropriate signals before your workout begins.
- No decrease in contractibility or strength post stretching
- Has been shown to increase power, running and jumping
- Since 2013 there have been 15 studies on foam rolling, of which 12 found that it increases flexibility and range of movement
- Research also showed that strength does not decrease post foam rolling so this may be a good type of mobilisation to do pre-workout
- Instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilisation — IASTM — is a soft-tissue treatment technique that uses bevel-edged tools or instruments to find and treat your scar tissue, fascial restrictions and fibrotic adhesions.
- More research is needed to support the effectiveness of IASTM. However, there is some evidence that suggests this technique increases joint range of motion in the short term.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring