Stretching For Flexibility and Range of Motion
Stretching is the deliberate act of the lengthening of muscles in order to increase muscle flexibility and/or joint range of motion.
Whether helpful or not (which is still in dispute), most athletes do stretch before or after exercising in order to increase performance and reduce injury.
Just as there are different types of flexibility, there are also different ways to lengthen your muscles and loosen your joints; dynamic (meaning they involve motion) or static (meaning they involve no motion).
Dynamic movements affect dynamic flexibility and static movements affect static flexibility (and dynamic flexibility to some degree).
Different types of stretches include:
- Ballistic: Uses the momentum of a moving body or limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. It uses a bouncing motion, using the muscle as a spring, which pulls you out of the extended position. This is not considered useful and can lead to injury.
- Dynamic: Consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you gently to the limits of your range of motion with no bounces or jerky movements. Unlike ballistic which involves trying to force a part of your body beyond its range.
- Active: Also referred to as static-active. This is where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. For example: 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.
- Passive: Also referred to as relaxed and static-passive. This is where you assume a position in a relaxed state 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.
- Static: Consists of lengthening a muscle or group of muscles to its farthest point and then maintaining or holding that position.
- Isometric: Involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric contractions (tensing) of the muscles. Resistance can be applied manually to one's own limbs, a partner can apply the resistance, or you can use an apparatus such as a wall (or floor) to provide resistance.
PNF stretching (acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is a technique of combining passive and isometric movements together in order usually with a partner to achieve maximum static flexibility. Initially developed as a method of rehabilitating stroke victims, the muscle group is passively manipulated, then contracted isometrically against resistance, and then passively manipulated again
When done properly, benefits can include:
- Enhanced physical fitness
- Enhanced ability to learn and perform skilled movements
- Increased 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
Some common mistakes include:
- Improper warm-up
- Inadequate rest between workouts
- Over stretching
- Performing the wrong exercises
- Performing exercises in the wrong order (or sub-optimal) sequence
1. Warm up:
Stretching is a very important part of warming up, but it is not the warming up. A proper warm up (raising your core body temperature) should increase your body temperature by one or two degrees Celsius.
A proper warm up will consist of a general warm-up, stretches, and then a sport-specific activity. It is very important that you perform the general warm-up before you stretch.
Warming up can do more than just loosen stiff muscles; when done properly it can actually improve performance and if done improper, it can greatly increase your risk of injury.
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, permitting your joints to function more easily.
Perform slow circular movements, both clockwise and counter-clockwise, until the joint seems to move smoothly
Follow the following order (in the order given or in the reverse order):
- Fingers and knuckles
After finishing the joint rotations, engage in at least five minutes of aerobic activity such as jogging, jumping rope, etc., that will cause a similar increase in your cardiovascular output (i.e., get your blood pumping).
The purpose of this is to raise your core body temperature and "get your blood" flowing. Increased blood flow in the muscles improves muscle performance and flexibility reducing the likelihood of injury.
3. Warm-up stretches:
This phase of the warm-up consist of two parts - both static and dynamic. Static should always be performed before any dynamic movements, as dynamic can often result in over-stretching, which damages the muscles.
Immediately following your general warm-up, engage in some slow, relaxed, static movements. Start with your back and proceed in the following order:
- sides (external obliques)
- Forearms and wrists
- Thighs (quadriceps and abductors)
Once you have performed your static movements, you should engage in some light dynamic movements: leg-raises and arm-swings in all directions, as many sets as it takes to reach your maximum range of motion in any given direction.
4. Sport-specific activity:
The last part of your warm-up should be devoted to performing movements that are a "watered-down" version of the movements that you will be performing during your athletic activity.
This will improve your coordination, balance, strength, response time, and reduce the risk of injury and then you are ready to begin your exercise or sporting activity.
Cooling down is similar to the second half of your warm-up but in reverse order. Warm down with 5 minutes of sport-specific activity, followed by dynamic, and then finally static stretches.
Stretching is a natural activity often performed without thinking by most people and many animals occurring right after waking from sleep, after long periods of inactivity, or after exiting confined spaces. It can be both pleasurable and enjoyable while increasing physical performance and reducing injury.
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