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Stretching and Flexibility

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How many of you stretch? Detailed look at why you should be stretching, when you should stretch and different types of stretching exercises.

Stretching

We have all heard of it, and yet the amount of people who don’t stretch after their warm up is astounding. Most weight trainers think that is not ‘macho’ to be seen in front of their mates stretching and miss it out all together this is a big mistake because Stretching is a fundamental way to improve your overall health and fitness. And can make daily activities easier and help prevent injury during exercise. Stretching should always be done after a warm up prior to engaging in an exercise. This will prepare the muscles for exercise and decrease the chances of injury. By incorporating a regular stretching program into your exercise routine you will:

  • Decrease pain and soreness after exercise
  • Improve circulation
  • Improve range of motion
  • Improve posture
  • Decrease muscle tension
  • Reduce muscle soreness
  • Improve your ability to relax
  • Allow time for mental training, such as visualization

So we now know the benefits and yes we have decided to include them into our training routine “haven’t we”..?? We first have to find out about the different types of stretches that we can do.

Stretches are either dynamic (meaning they involve motion) or static (meaning they involve no motion). Dynamic stretches affect dynamic flexibility and static stretches affect static flexibility (and dynamic flexibility to some degree).

The 7 different types of stretching:

  1. Ballistic stretching
  2. Dynamic stretching
  3. Active stretching
  4. Passive (or relaxed) stretching
  5. Static stretching
  6. Isometric stretching
  7. PNF stretching

Ballistic stretching

 Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. This is stretching, or "warming up", by bouncing into (or out of) a stretched position, using the stretched muscles as a spring which pulls you out of the stretched position. (E.g. bouncing down repeatedly to touch your toes.) This type of stretching is not considered useful and can lead to injury. It does not allow your muscles to adjust to, and relax in, the stretched position. It may instead cause them to tighten up by repeatedly activating the stretch reflex (When the muscle is stretched, so is the muscle spindle The muscle spindle records the change in length (and how fast) and sends signals to the spine which convey this information. This triggers the stretch reflex (also called the myotatic reflex) which attempts to resist the change in muscle length by causing the stretched muscle to contract. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be.)

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching, involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both." Do not confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching! Dynamic stretching consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you (gently!) to the limits of your range of motion. Ballistic stretches involve trying to force a part of the body beyond its range of motion. In dynamic stretches, there are no bounces or "jerky" movements. An example of dynamic stretching would be slow, controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists.

Active Stretching

Active stretching is also referred to as static-active stretching. An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. An example of this would be bringing your leg up high and then holding it there without anything, (other than your leg muscles themselves) to keep the leg in that extended position. The tension of the agonists in an active stretch helps to relax the muscles being stretched (the antagonists) by reciprocal inhibition Active stretching increases active flexibility and strengthens the agonistic muscles. Active stretches are usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for more than 10 seconds and rarely need to be held any longer than 15 seconds.

Many of the movements (or stretches) found in various forms of yoga are active stretches.

Passive Stretching

Passive stretching is also referred to as relaxed stretching, and as static-passive stretching. A passive stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus. For example, bringing your leg up high and then holding it there with your hand. The splits are an example of a passive stretch (in this case the floor is the "apparatus" that you use to maintain your extended position). Slow, relaxed stretching is useful in relieving spasms in muscles that are healing after an injury. Obviously, you should check with your doctor first to see if it is okay to attempt to stretch the injured muscles. Relaxed stretching is also very good for "cooling down" after a workout and helps reduce post-workout muscle fatigue, and soreness.

Static Stretching

Static stretching involves holding a position. That is, you stretch to the farthest point and hold the stretch. Passive stretching is a technique in which you are relaxed and make no contribution to the range of motion. Instead, an external force is created by an outside agent, either manually or mechanically. Notice that the definition of passive stretching given in the previous section encompasses both of the above definitions. Throughout this document, when the term static stretching or passive stretching is used, its intended meaning is the definition of passive stretching as described in the previous section. You should be aware of these alternative meanings, however, when looking at other references on stretching.

Isometric Stretching

Isometric stretching is a type of static stretching (meaning it does not use motion) which involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric contractions (tensing) of the stretched muscles. The use of isometric stretching is one of the fastest ways to develop increased static-passive flexibility and is much more effective than either passive stretching or active stretching alone. Isometric stretches also help to develop strength in the "tensed" muscles (which helps to develop static-active flexibility), and seems to decrease the amount of pain usually associated with stretching.

The most common ways to provide the needed resistance for an isometric stretch are to apply resistance manually to one's own limbs, to have a partner apply the resistance, or to use an apparatus such as a wall (or the floor) to provide resistance. An example of manual resistance would be holding onto the ball of your foot to keep it from flexing while you are using the muscles of your calf to try and straighten your instep so that the toes are pointed.

An example of using a partner to provide resistance, would be having a partner hold your leg up high (and keep it there) while you attempt to force your leg back down to the ground.

An example of using the wall to provide resistance would be the well known "push-the-wall" calf-stretch where you are actively attempting to move the wall (even though you know you can't).

Isometric stretching is not recommended for children and adolescents whose bones are still growing. These people are usually already flexible enough that the strong stretches produced by the isometric contraction have a much higher risk of damaging tendons and connective tissue. It is recommended preceding any isometric stretch of a muscle with dynamic strength training for the muscle to be stretched. A full session of isometric stretching makes a lot of demands on the muscles being stretched and should not be performed more than once per day for a given group of muscles (ideally, no more than once every 36 hours).

The proper way to perform an isometric stretch is as follows:

  1. Assume the position of a passive stretch for the desired muscle.
  2. Next, tense the stretched muscle for 7-15 seconds (resisting against some force that will not move, like the floor or a partner).
  3. Finally, relax the muscle for at least 20 seconds.

PNF Stretches

PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching is currently the fastest and most effective way known to increase static-passive flexibility. It is not really a type of stretching but is a technique of combining passive stretching and isometric stretching (in order to achieve maximum static flexibility. PNF was initially developed as a method of rehabilitating stroke victims. PNF refers to any of several post-isometric relaxation stretching techniques in which a muscle group is passively stretched, then contracts isometrically against resistance while in the stretched position, and then is passively stretched again through the resulting increased range of motion. PNF stretching usually employs the use of a partner to provide resistance against the isometric contraction and then later to passively take the joint through its increased range of motion. It may be performed, however, without a partner, although it is usually more effective with a partner's assistance.

Most PNF stretching techniques employ isometric agonist contraction/relaxation where the stretched muscles are contracted isometrically and then relaxed. Some PNF techniques also employ isometric antagonist contraction where the antagonists of the stretched muscles are contracted. In all cases, it is important to note that the stretched muscle should be rested (and relaxed) for at least 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique. The most common PNF stretching techniques are:

The hold-relax

This technique is also called the contract-relax. After assuming an initial passive stretch, the muscle being stretched is isometrically contracted for 7-15 seconds, after which the muscle is briefly relaxed for 2-3 seconds, and then immediately subjected to a passive stretch which stretches the muscle even further than the initial passive stretch. This final passive stretch is held for 10-15 seconds. The muscle is then relaxed for 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique.

The hold-relax-contract

This technique is also called the contract-relax-contract, and the contract-relax-antagonist-contract (CRAC). It involves performing two isometric contractions: first of the agonists, then, of the antagonists. The first part is similar to the hold-relax where, after assuming an initial passive stretch, the stretched muscle is isometrically contracted for 7-15 seconds. Then the muscle is relaxed while its antagonist immediately performs an isometric contraction that is held for 7-15 seconds. The muscles are then relaxed for 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique.

The hold-relax-swing

This technique (and a similar technique called the hold-relax-bounce) actually involves the use of dynamic or ballistic stretches in conjunction with static and isometric stretches. It is very risky, and is successfully used only by the most advanced of athletes and dancers that have managed to achieve a high level of control over their muscle stretch reflex It is similar to the hold-relax technique except that a dynamic or ballistic stretch is employed in place of the final passive stretch.

Notice that in the hold-relax-contract, there is no final passive stretch. It is replaced by the antagonist-contraction which, via reciprocal inhibition, serves to relax and further stretch the muscle that was subjected to the initial passive stretch. Because there is no final passive stretch, this PNF technique is considered one of the safest PNF techniques to perform (it is less likely to result in torn muscle tissue). Some people like to make the technique even more intense by adding the final passive stretch after the second isometric contraction. Although this can result in greater flexibility gains, it also increases the likelihood of injury.

Even more risky are dynamic and ballistic PNF stretching techniques like the hold-relax-swing, and the hold-relax-bounce. If you are not a professional athlete or dancer, you probably have no business attempting either of these techniques (the likelihood of injury is just too great). Even professionals should not attempt these techniques without the guidance of a professional coach or training advisor. These two techniques have the greatest potential for rapid flexibility gains, but only when performed by people who have a sufficiently high level of control of the stretch reflex in the muscles that are being stretched. PNF stretching is also not recommended for children and people whose bones are still growing (for the same reasons. Also like isometric stretching, PNF stretching helps strengthen the muscles that are contracted and therefore is good for increasing active flexibility as well as passive flexibility. Furthermore, as with isometric stretching, PNF stretching is very strenuous and should be performed for a given muscle group no more than once per day (ideally, no more than once per 36 hour period).

The initial recommended procedure for PNF stretching is to perform the desired PNF technique 3-5 times for a given muscle group (resting 20 seconds between each repetition). As a result, in order to decrease the amount of time taken up by your stretching routine (without decreasing its effectiveness), you are recommend performing only one PNF technique per muscle group stretched in a given stretching session.

When done properly, stretching can do more than just increase flexibility. Benefits of stretching include:

  • Enhanced physical fitness
  • Enhanced ability to learn and perform skilled movements
  • Encreased mental and physical relaxation
  • Enhanced development of body awareness
  • Reduced risk of injury to joints, muscles, and tendons
  • Reduced muscular soreness
  • Reduced muscular tension
  • Increased suppleness due to stimulation of the production of chemicals which lubricate connective tissues
  • Reduced severity of painful menstruation in females

Unfortunately, even those who stretch do not always stretch properly and hence do not reap some or all of these benefits. Some of the most common mistakes made when stretching are:

  • Improper warm-up
  • Inadequate rest between workouts
  • Overstretching
  • Performing the wrong exercises
  • Performing exercises in the wrong (or sub-optimal) sequence

Warming up before training

 The general warm-up should begin with joint-rotations, starting either from your toes and working your way up, or from your fingers and working your way down. This facilitates joint motion by lubricating the entire joint with synovial fluid. Such lubrication permits your joints to function more easily when called upon to participate in your training activity. You should perform slow circular movements, both clockwise and counter-clockwise, until the joint seems to move smoothly. You should rotate the following (in the order given, or in the reverse order):

  1. Fingers and knuckles
  2. Wrists
  3. Elbows
  4. Shoulders
  5. Neck
  6. Trunk/waist
  7. Hips
  8. Legs
  9. Knees
  10. Ankles
  11. Toes

Once the general warm-up has been completed, the muscles are warmer and more elastic. Immediately following your general warm-up, you should engage in some slow, relaxed, static stretching. You should start with your back, followed by your upper body and lower body, stretching your muscles in the following order:

  1. Back
  2. Sides (external obliques)
  3. Neck
  4. Forearms and wrists
  5. Triceps
  6. Chest
  7. Buttocks
  8. Groin (adductors)
  9. Thighs (quadriceps and abductors)
  10. Calves
  11. Shins
  12. Hamstrings
  13. Instep

Some good static stretches for these various muscles may be found in most books about stretching. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time to stretch all these muscles before a workout. If you are one such person, you should at least take the time to stretch all the muscles that will be heavily used during your workout.

The After Training Cool Down

Stretching is not a legitimate means of cooling down. It is only part of the process. After you have completed your workout, the best way to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness (caused by the production of lactic acid from your maximal or near-maximal muscle exertion) is to perform a light warm-down. This warm-down is similar to the second half of your warm-up (but in the reverse order).

The warm-down consists of three phases:

  1. Sport-specific activity
  2. Dynamic stretching
  3. Static stretching

Ideally, you should start your warm-down with about 10-20 minutes of sport-specific activity (perhaps only a little more intense than in your warm-up). In reality however, you may not always have 10-20 minutes to spare at the end of your workout. You should, however, attempt to perform at least 5 minutes of sport-specific activity in this case. The sport-specific activity should immediately be followed by stretching: First perform some light dynamic stretches until your heart rate slows down to its normal rate, and then perform some static stretches. Sport-specific activity, followed by stretching, can reduce cramping, tightening, and soreness in fatigued muscles and will make you feel better.

Light warm-down exercise immediately following maximal exertion is a better way of clearing lactic acid from the blood than complete rest. Furthermore, if you are still sore the next day, a light warm-up or warm-down is a good way to reduce lingering muscle tightness and soreness even when not performed immediately after a workout.

Quite frequently, the progression of sensations you feel as you reach the extreme ranges of a stretch are: localized warmth of the stretched muscles, followed by a burning (or spasm-like) sensation, followed by sharp pain (or "ouch!" pain). The localized warming will usually occur at the origin, or point of insertion, of the stretched muscles. When you begin to feel this, it is your first clue that you may need to "back off" and reduce the intensity of the stretch. If you ignore (or do not feel) the warming sensation, and you proceed to the point where you feel a definite burning sensation in the stretched muscles, then you should ease up immediately and discontinue the stretch! You may not be sore yet, but you probably will be the following day. If your stretch gets to the point where you feel sharp pain, it is quite likely that the stretch has already resulted in tissue damage which may cause immediate pain and soreness that persists for several days.

So now we know all about it. There is no reason why it should be missed out!

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  • About The Author
    Doug is an ex-competitive bodybuilder with over 20 years fitness experience, specifically diet & nutrition, weight management and training techniques.
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Comments (4)

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Liam Mac
Posted Mon, 07/12/2010 - 15:19

Great article! Having just recently been diagnosed with shin splints, I now understand the importance of stretching! Theres definitely a stigma around stretching in the gym for weight training.

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Random Guy
Posted Mon, 09/24/2012 - 04:20

It was rescently suggested to me not to stretch before a workout. What do you think was the reasoning?

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THE_COOLEST_GUY_EVER
Posted Tue, 01/08/2013 - 15:19

this website is cool i found alo of stuff i needed in here

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THE_COOLEST_GUY_EVER
Posted Tue, 01/08/2013 - 15:20

YO

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