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An Ultimate Guide to Stretching by Megan Johnson McCullough

Guide to Stretching

Guide to Stretching - (Image Credit: Shutterstock); Author picture - (Image Credit: Author)

Stretching: Why & What Types

The act of stretching is often timing an over looked aspect of fitness, despite the fact that we know it is good for us and all the benefits that come with it. The problem is that in our fast paced, pinched with time schedules, we put stretching on the back burner.
Since most of the time it comes at the end of the workout, we skip it. Since most of the time we don’t have enough time, we don’t do it. Cardiovascular and strength training exercises take priority, and if there are a few minutes left, we stretch for a moment. It’s as if slowing down to stretch is a rare occasion.

Why Stretch

Our muscles become tight and shortened as a result of all the hard work they perform for us. Short muscles are not strong muscles; they’re actually weaker. Stretching lengthens the range of motions in the surrounding joints of the muscles. Short muscles that are not able to fully extend can lead to injury, muscle damage, and strains.

The most common example of this comes from tight hamstrings (the back of the legs) from being in the seated position the majority of the day. Tight hamstrings don’t allow the leg to straighten all the way which then puts stress on the knees.

When a person with these tight hamstrings gets up and starts their activity, such as going for a run or going to play basketball, suddenly these tight muscles are asked to perform and they are not flexible enough to meet the demand, which then leaves the person injury prone.

Furthermore, the body is a kinetic chain which means if the hamstrings are tight, the connectors are tight too which would include the glutes and low back. Hence, low back pain caused from too much sitting.

Types of Stretching

1. Static

This is the type of stretching where you hold the position for 30 seconds to one minute in order to feel the muscle tension that is then released once you let go. The muscles stretches and then relaxes due to the tension of the position. This is the most common type of stretching.

It is important not to stretch the muscles to a point of discomfort of pain, rather, you might be able to reach or stretch further over time. Active stretching is when you hold the stretches yourself working through the range of motions and passive is when someone assists you to hold this position.

2. Dynamic

body warms up
This is also called an active warm up in which the person performs movement patterns similar to those that are going to take place during the activity. The movement starts small and as the body warms up, the range of motion increase.

For example, a track runner who does hurdles might do leg swings back and forth as a form of stretching. As they start to loosen up the joints, the kicks can become bigger and longer. There are many variations of this type of stretching and it is usually accompanied by some type of jog or other easy form of cardiovascular activity to prepare the body for movement.

3. PNF

This stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and typically has a hold-relax assisted stretch. Many physical therapists and sports injury professional use this type. An example of this would be a person lying on their back and raising one leg into the air.

The therapist would then push resistance against the leg, hold it in an isolated position, and the person would push back, creating a resistance that stretches the back of the leg (hamstring).

As previously mentioned, this is a form of static stretching. This type of stretching is also called reciprocal inhibition which means when the agonist muscle contracts, the antagonist muscle becomes inhibited, causing it to relax. For example, if the quads are contracted this would straighten the knee, which then causes the back of the leg to relax which are the hamstrings.

PNF Exercise

Stretching Tools

1. Foam roller: This is a type of self-myofascial release which puts pressure on the muscle fibers (facia), causing the facia to break up and release the tension. There are different types of rollers with different surfaces or densities such as ridges or a medium or soft density.

2. Yoga/stretching straps: Using straps can assist with stretching the joint further in a slow and controlled, safe manner.

3. Massage guns or vibrating tools: Like the foam roller, pressure is applied to targeted areas to release the tight facia. There are different intensities and speeds that can be used.

4. Stretch cage: This can look like a jungle gym with many different bars. The person typically holds the bars and leans back to elongate the muscles. This is a form of static stretching.

Today there are now locations often called “stretch zones” in which someone stretches out the client’s body in areas that are tight. Much like a massage therapist, the stretch therapist feels and finds tight areas and works to release the tension. Often times, people who feel sore a lot or that want to increase their flexibility will regularly schedule appointments to consistently help with their body’s needs.

Benefits

The major benefit of stretching is the potential to recover quicker from workouts and training. Being sore is often a desired sensation for avid workout fans, but being too sore can hinder performance at the next workout or training.

When a person is overly sore, injury is prone to take place. The body is tight and tight muscles become compromised during movement patterns. For athletes, stretching is particularly important to be able to put in practice day in and day out.

For runners, when tight hamstrings and calves frequently occur, shin splints and IT band injuries can occur. These are setbacks that were actually preventable.

Stretching is a form of self-care and many times when we put these items last, the first thing that can happen is burn out or injury that can become cyclical and habitual. Stretching is not to be ignored or forgotten.

Stretching Leg

Can Stretching Cause Injury?

Unfortunately, most people only do static, passive stretching, and not always when their body is prepared for this. Often, people think they should stretch before they workout, which is true, when done correctly. Static stretching tight, stiff muscles, is asking the joints and areas to reach beyond their current range of motion given that they are not properly warmed up.

Think about when you have bent over to reach for your toes and the hamstrings feel super tight. Doing this again after a slight warm up like a walk, jog, or bike ride, loosens up those hamstrings to now be prepared to stretch.

A more appropriate form of stretching pre-exercise would be using a foam roller or dynamically moving the body. This is refereed to as an active warm up and then you can stretch if you are feeling stiff or tight. Static stretching in between exercises or after the workout is more preferable.

For example, for someone who is lifting weights and focusing on the triceps, in between sets the person could statically stretch their triceps before going onto the next set.
The answer is yes, you can get hurt stretching. This is most commonly caused by the person causing damage to the fibers my stretching the muscle beyond its limits, feeling quite a bit of pain during a stretch (forcing this position), and/or improper form when doing the stretch.

Common & Important Areas to Stretch

Areas to Stretch
1. Quadriceps: This is the area in the front of the leg which is a primary, dominant muscle. Quadriceps are repeatedly used for walking, running, lunging, and squatting. They burn major calories, and they also get quite sore. For some, they’re a dominant muscle often overused to compensate for weaker muscles such as the hamstrings.

2. Hip Flexors: These become tight especially for those who sit a lot. When seated, the hip flexors are bent in a 90 degree position versus being extended 180 degrees. When kept bent hour after hour, the hips rest into this position and become stiff.

3. Calves: These are the springs or shock absorbers of so many movement patterns. Running and jumping certainly call upon the calves to assist. When the calves are too sore, knee pain is very common. Even though you might think you aren’t directly using you calves, most lower body exercises actually are.

4. Neck: Tension in the neck can come fright tightness in the upper back area and shoulders. We often roll our necks around to loosen up the area or move the head side to side. Sleeping positions are staring at a screen all day can make the head protrude forward and compromise a neutral position of the neck.

pushups

5. Chest: This is an over worked muscle for many people, but often neglected. A tight chest can round the shoulders forward. Bench press and pushups pf course use the chest muscles, but so do many other moves and sitting with the shoulders forward tightens up these areas.

6. Ankles: These muscles are moved and pivoted all sorts of directions during the day. They are kept tight in our shoes. They support all the big muscles used for running, jumping, and squatting. Having more range of motion can reduce the risk of injury and even improve performance potentially.

7. Feet: Our feet are put the test every single day for us because they’re the last man on the totem poll supporting the entire kinetic chain moving up the body.

There are many small muscles in the feet that need to be loosened up. Even tightness in the toes and ankles can hinder foot mobility. Keeping good form for your feet helps with squatting and different moves like kettlebell swings.

8. Piriformis: This muscle gets used and abused a lot. Being part of your glutes, they get used all the time and then get ignored during sitting. This causes them to become tight and inflexible. This can even lead to back pain as these muscles are connected to the lower back.

9. Hip adductors: This is the inner thigh, so these are the muscles used when you put your legs together. However, if they’re tight, your pelvis can lean forward, and this compromises movement patterns that lead you prone to injury.

10. Hamstrings: These tend to become short and tight and even weak because of the dominating quads. These are a large muscle, and they are used for many movements and bear a lot of weight for you.

Why You Get Sore

muscle soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur usually one to two days post activity. It can feel difficult to walk up stairs or even sit down.

The muscles have become stiff and tight from being used, then not used, so less blood floor and circulation is being given attention to in the previously worked areas. Stretching, which is lengthening the muscle, thus increases blood flow to these areas and can help get rid of waste products faster, making recovery come sooner.

Final Thoughts

Stretching every now and then or quickly just to say you did it, won’t let you reap the benefits entirely. Stretching needs to be performed habitually and consistently so that range of motion, also known as flexibility, can increase. Stretching can translate to feeling better and when you feel better, you perform better.

Even though stretching adds a little time to what little time you have, it is worth the time. It doesn’t have to be fancy, rather, focus on areas you work and use the most to help them recover and make you feel better.

Do it while watching T.V. or listening to a book on tape or music. Make it enjoyable and incorporate it into your life as it already is. Stretch yourself more and you will find the “length” of time spent doing so was definitely worth it.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. The content on our website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or therapy. You should NEVER disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking treatment due to something you have read on our website and we will not be held responsible for any adverse health condition or injury that occurs as a result of doing so.
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Megan Johnson McCullough

Bodybuilder, Author, and Fitness Model

Megan Johnson McCullough is the owner of Every BODY’s Fit, fitness studio in Oceanside CA. She is an NASM Ma...

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