stretching

A proper warm up will:

  • Lubricate your joints which will protect your cartilage and joints to prevent arthritic damage and pain
  • Make your muscles flexible so they’re less likely to tear
  • Make your muscles ready to contract so they will perform fast and protect your joints.

There are different types of stretching and some are better for certain activities than others. For example static stretching (when you hold a stretch for a length of time) is not recommended for football because it will make your muscles slower to contract. In football your muscles need to act fast not only because it’s a fast sport but because there are unpredictable factors like someone tackling your legs or you are suddenly bent backwards over another player. Therefore your muscles also need to act fast to protect your joints.

However, in an activity where there is less predictability, like gymnastics, static stretching would be a fine warm up.

This article will cover the different types of stretching and how to perform them.

What Happens When You Stretch

The length and tension of your muscles are controlled by your nervous system, specifically the lower motor system. There are reflex organs in your muscles that set the length called muscle spindles. The purpose of the muscle spindles is to monitor the stretch of your muscles because when a muscle is stretched there is a potential for the muscle to tear. Therefore, when the muscle spindle detects a fast change in muscle length it contracts reflexively to protect your muscles.

When the muscle spindle tone is set short the more a small stretch will trigger the spindle. However, if the tone of the muscle spindle is set long it will contract slower. When the tone is set high this will make the muscle more likely to tear but will make the muscle more likely to contract or act fast. When it is set low it will make your muscle less likely to tear but make your muscles slower to contract.

It is important to understand that stretching is linked to your nervous system and not a change in the muscle tissue for these important reasons:

  • Sometimes it is disheartening when you stretch all the time and feel there is no improvement. Sometimes it takes time to change the nervous system.

 

  • If you do stretch all the time and still feel tight it may not be that you need to stretch more but you may have soft tissue changes such as trigger points or adhesions. This needs to be addressed with manual therapy such as your own self massage, massage therapy, chiropractic, or physical therapy.

Dynamic Mobilization: Limber Up and Get Your Muscles Ready to Fire

The fact that stretching affects the muscle spindles and makes them contract slower calls into question the effectiveness of stretching before sports activities. Instead, dynamic mobilization is thought to be a better way to stretch before exercise. Dynamic Mobilization is a technique in which you perform the movement of your chosen activity or sport with little speed or resistance. You gradually work up to full resistance and speed.

In this manner you are lubricating the joints, stretching your muscles, and contracting your muscles. Instead of going from 0 to 100 you are going from 0 to 10, to 20, to 30, until you get to full speed of 100.

This is how dynamic mobilization works. Take, for instance, a tennis backswing. With no racket in hand, as you swing forward you will be stretching your muscles in the back of your shoulder while the muscles in the front of your shoulder will be contracting.  As you come back you will now be stretching the muscles in the front of your shoulder while contracting your muscles of the back of your shoulder.

The same could be done for the lower body. You could perform some lunge movements forward and side to side.

In the slow startup phase the idea would be to just get the joints moving and small stretches to the muscle groups. In the middle phase your movements are bigger and your muscles receive a bigger stretch and move a little faster. In the end phase your muscles fire at full speed and stretch at full speed.

Another benefit of dynamic mobilization is you can focus on your form. When you practice a movement slowly your brain will pick up faulty movement patterns more easily than when you move fast. This can be an excellent time to fix bad movement patterns which can lead to complicated pain problems.

Here is a video with some ideas. (15:07)

Static Stretching

Static stretching is when you hold the stretch for a length of time typically ten seconds or more. Static stretching is best after your workouts or activities and when it is not as important for your muscles to contract quickly. It can also be a restful way to end your day, for relaxation, and meditative purposes.

In static stretching it is important to move slowly into the stretch. Remember, when you move a tight muscle too fast you will tear it which causes a muscle strain.  Here are the steps to properly stretch.

  • Move into the stretch just to where you feel a mild stretch. Hold the stretch and breathe. Inhale and exhale. You can either hold it by counting the seconds or by the number of breaths. Seven to ten breaths is a good place to start.

 

  • Once you feel the stretch is no longer mild or you feel you can move further into the stretch inhale and on your exhale move further into the stretch. Once again move to where the stretch feels mild.

 

  • Repeat until you feel the stretch is sufficient. When you move out of the stretch be sure to move slowly out of the stretch.

PNF Stretching

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation uses the reflex organs to get a faster stretch than static stretching. There are two types of PNF stretching.

  • Contract/Relax or CR stretching- uses the muscle spindles and relaxes the muscle belly. The idea is you contract the target muscle first then stretch it.

 

  • Agonist/Relax or AR stretching- uses the golgi tendon organs to relax the tendons of the muscle. In this stretching you contract the muscle opposite the target muscle then stretch the target muscle.

PNF stretching can be difficult to do on your own and is typically done by a massage therapist, physical therapist, or chiropractor.

Here are some PNF stretches you can do at home.

This video shows Contract Relax Stretching for the hamstrings. (3:05)

This video shows Agonist Relax stretching for the hamstrings. (3:38)

This is a basic guide to know when and how to use stretching and warm-up activities. When you have a good warmup and stretching routine it can make a world of difference to prevent common injuries to your muscles and joints. The goal of any exercise is to be able to do it for years to come. This will help you achieve that goal.

I hope you found this article helpful. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!