Two of the most common questions I'm asked as a Personal Trainer are what the benefits of stretching are and when is the most effective time to actually perform some stretching. So in this blog I'm going to give you a little information about the rationale behind stretching, the types of stretching you can do and when the best time is to apply some of these moves.
Just to throw in a large disclaimer here - I'm entirely appalling at following my own advice leaving me with incredibly short and tight hamstrings due to the level of running I've been doing in the past few years. This is very much a 'do as I say not as I do' type post....
There are any number of reasons you should be stretching so it's not just because I said so! Off the top of my head, here's just a few:
Decreased risk of injury
Less energy needed to perform an exercise thus improving your performance
Decrease muscle soreness after exercise
Less back pain
The Basic Principles of Stretching
The main purpose of stretching is either to maintain or increase the Range of Motion (ROM) around a specific joint. Muscles work in opposing pairs so there needs to be a solid balance of strength and length between them. If a muscle is too long then you can expect the opposing muscle to be short & tight.
If there is insufficient ROM around a joint then the stretching of muscles around that area would be beneficial. Alternatively if there is already good ROM around the joint then further stretching would be applied to ensure the maintenance of that ROM in the longer term.
That said, if you have excessive ROM around a joint (i.e. you're 'hypermobile') then you should avoid stretching that particular area as you may be lengthening a muscle that is already too long, risking injury. In such circumstance a programme of muscle strengthening & movement control is applied to improve the joint stability and decrease the risk of injury.
Types of Stretching
There are a number of methods of stretching and recommendations as to when you should use them so I understand that this can all get confusing and frustrating! I've given you an overview of the techniques you have available below that should give you some confidence as to when to apply some of this knowledge:
What is it?
This is stretching with movement so the muscle is both lengthened and shortened constantly without being held at it's full length for any particular duration of time. The movement is controlled so the joint is taken through it's full range at a fairly moderate speed. These movements bring a higher risk of injury due to the speed involved and the potential to overstretch but it does generally prepare the muscles better for exercise.
'Ballistic' Streching is also included in this category due to the movements involved - you may have seen people in your gym 'bouncing' into a stretch. This invokes the stretch reflex so the muscle contracts whilst being lengthened. I personally wouldn't recommend doing ballistic stretching if you're new to exercise or you have limited ROM due to the very high risk of injury.
As noted above, dynamic stretching is found to prepare the muscles better for exercise so you should include this within your warm up. This not only allows you to raise your heart rate during the start of your warm up but also maintain it whilst you safely stretch and get ready for the main section of your workout.
What is it?
I would expect you all have come across this type of stretching in some form or the other at some point! This is where you lengthen the muscle slowly until you can feel tension in the largest part of your muscle. The key to this method is to feel tension in the muscle without experiencing pain. If there is genuine pain then slowly release the stretch.
You can expect to see some improved flexibility due to the desensitisation of the stretch reflex and the subsequent lengthening of any tight connective tissue. Due to this reason you may have heard static stretching referred to as 'developmental stretching'.
Only undertake this type of stretching when your muscles are warm. Stretching cold muscles could have the opposite effect as you are looking for and make any tightness worse. The best way to describe this is to imagine a knot in an elastic band.... if you stretch the band the knot will of course only get tighter. When you're muscles are warm they will be naturally looser and you will be able to maintain or improve your ROM in the joint.
Stretches should be held for between 15-30s dependant on what you are trying to do - i.e. improvements or maintenance, and you should focus on the areas that you have been using during your workout to alleviate muscle soreness in the following days.
This is a great method to really increase flexibility. Without wanting to weigh you down with the physiology behind it the main principle is that a muscle is put under tension, released, then stretched, allowing that muscle to be taken well beyind it's usual range. This immediate improvement is temporary but using this method of stretching regularly will no doubt increase ROM.
Much like dynamic/ballistic stretching, this form of stretching is viewed as slightly less safe than static stretching. Due to the specific techniques involved in this method it is generally recommended that you consult a Personal Trainer (hello!) to assist you to ensure that you avoid overstretching the muscle.
A good Personal Trainer (hello again!) will also be able to teach you some methods and techniques that you can use in your own time. For instance a towel wrapped around your foot can be used as resistance when attempting to stretch your hamstrings.
It is absolutely vital that you only use this technique if you have the knowledge and experience to do so and make sure that you are thoroughly warm before you undertake this form of stretching.
How Often Should I Stretch?
The ACSM guidelines state that stretching should be done at least 2-3 times a week applying a few repetitions per muscle group. I would add to this that you absolutely must stretch before (dynamic) and after (static) every workout you do as this will no doubt reduce any soreness you experience post workout as well as ensure improvements or maintenance in your flexibility.
One of the key tasks as a Personal Trainer is to observe your flexibility so I can understand which muscles you need to stretch to make improvements. This is done visually after observing you perform a range of stretches at which point I will be able to add some bespoke training into your programme focussing on problem areas or those that you need to maintain.
If you have any questions on this post or need some further advice on anything then don't hesitate to contact me