Stretching properly is such an important component of fitness, yet it is often overlooked or ignored entirely. We discuss how to stretch properly and effectively.
Stretching, what's the big deal? Maybe that's how you feel. You get in the gym, you make your way over to the mat, and you do a few stretches, get bored and walk over to the weights. Or maybe you skip stretching all together. Will stretching really help build muscle and what's the point?
Stretching is the act of lengthening the muscle to increase range of motion. Each joint in our body has a limited range of motion that the joint will allow. However, at times we may lose our full range of motion. A few reasons have to do with diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, arthritis and past injuries. As we get older we naturally lose range. Pain can also limit our range of motion. Poor posture can increase chest tightness and decrease hip extension. Also poor form and technique, during our gym program, can decrease range of motion. Needless to say, most of us can relate one of these scenarios and will need to stretch before we start exercising. If we don't stretch we will only strengthen the range available to us. By stretching we can increase our potential.
There are many different ways to stretch. Three common ones are static stretching, contract-relax and ballistic. Contract-relax and ballistic should only be performed by trained professionals. If done wrong they can cause injury. So for this article we will stick with static stretching.
Static stretching is the act of lengthening the muscle and holding in a comfortable position for a minimum of 30 seconds. Research has shown that a longer hold can increase range of motion. If at all possible work up to 1 minute holds and repeat 3 times.
Let's go over a few simple stretches that can be performed before a normal exercise program. Start out with 30 seconds each stretch and repeat 3 times. All will be demonstrated with right limb but just reverse for left limb.
Calf stretching- Face the wall. Take a step back with the right leg. Keep right knee straight and slowly bend left leg until a stretch is felt in the right calf. Make sure the toes are facing forward and right heel never leaves the ground.
Quad stretching- Hold onto chair with your left hand. Bend right knee until you come close to the foot hitting the butt. Grab right foot with right hand and close the gap between your foot and your butt. Make sure your back is straight and not arched.
Hamstring Stretching- Sit Indian style on the floor. Slowly straighten the right leg until the back of the knee remains in contact with the floor. Place both hands above the knee (do not put pressure on the knee cap). Slowly bend forward until a stretch is felt. Keep spine straight even while bending forward. If this is too easy you can slowly move your hands down your leg.
Hip adductors- Sit Indian style. Place elbows on inside of both knees. Slowly push down until a stretch is felt in your thighs. Can be performed both legs at the same time.
Chest/pecs- Face the door frame. Place hand on wall at shoulder height. Bend elbow to 90 degrees. Slowly take a few steps to the left until a stretch is felt in the chest.
Triceps stretch- Bring right arm all the way up. Bend elbow until it touches your back. Use left arm to pull back until a stretch is felt behind the arm
Bicep stretch- Face wall. Place right arm straight out to the side on the wall. Turn hand until the back of the hand touches the wall. Slowly look to the left and take one step to the left. Keep turning until you feel a stretch in your biceps.
Incorporate these stretches before every session. You can also use them to help soothe sore muscles. Don't stretch too far. Hold the stretch at the moment you feel it. Continue with this program and I'm sure you'll notice a difference in how you feel.
You know for a fact that stretching is a crucial aspect of an exercise programme. For one, it gears you up for the grind ahead. Other general benefits are as follows:
* Reduced muscle tension
* Increased rate of movement in the joints
* Enhanced muscular coordination
* Increased circulation of the blood to various parts of the body
* Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
There are many types of stretching. For today, let us focus on two types and how they should be incorporated into your fitness regimen:
1. Dynamic stretching-essentially, dynamic stretching involves repeatedly performing challenging stretches that do not force the muscle past a comfortable range of motion. Its short definition is "stretching as you are moving." Each movement is controlled and requires a good amount of coordination due to the repetitious motion.
These rhythmical movements are often included in the warm-up of an exercise routine. This form of stretching should be smooth and intentional, whilst gradually increasing the range of motion over a set of 10 to 12 repetitions.
Here are some examples of dynamic stretching:
a. Joint rotations-from a standing position with your arms hanging loosely by your sides, flex, extend and rotate your fingers, wrist, elbows, shoulders, neck, trunk/shoulder blades, hips, knees, ankles and your feet.
b. Lateral flexion-lower your left ear toward your left shoulder and then your right ear toward your right shoulder; 10 to 12 repetitions.
c. Shoulder circles-stand on a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width stance. Raise your right shoulder toward your right ear, take it backwards, down and then up again to the ear in a smooth motion; 10 to 12 repetions.
d. Hip circles-with your hands on your hips and feet spread wider than your shoulders, make circles with your hips in a clockwise direction for 10 to 12 repetitions. Repeat for counter-clockwise movements.
e. Leg swings-stand sideways onto a wall. If your right side is facing the wall, stick out your right arm touching the wall for balance. Your weight should be focused on your left leg. Swing your right leg forward and backward. Do 10 to 12 repetitions on each leg.
One of dynamic stretching's main benefits is its ability to prepare and loosen muscles for a workout. Other benefits as noted by Gregory A. Frederick's study in 2001 in the Strength and Conditioning Journal include increase in core and muscle temperature, stimulation of the nervous system, improved elasticity and a decreased injury rate.
Dynamic stretching should be done before every workout. It has a cumulative effect over an extended period of time. After about four weeks, gains in mobility, flexibility and ability to move smoothly during training sessions should already be noticeable.
2. Static stretching-this is when you stretch and hold the muscle just beyond its normal range of motion. You are not moving around but simply elongating a particular muscle or group of muscles. Each stretch is ideally held for 15 to 30 seconds. Its primary purpose is to increase flexibility of the muscles and ligaments.
Some examples of static stretching are as follows:
a. Gastrocnemius stretch-stand facing a wall. Place both of your hands on the wall at chest height. Position your right leg back and your left leg forward. Keep both heels on the ground and lean forward toward the wall. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, switch legs and repeat three to four times.
b. Pectoralis stretch-stand in the doorway with both of your elbows at 90 degrees. Position your body in a staggered stance and lean forward until a stretch is felt in your chest and shoulder area. Hold stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three to four times.
c. Quadriceps stretch-whilst standing, hold on to the edge of a chair. Grab your right ankle with your right hand and bring your leg toward your glutes. A tolerable stretch will be felt on the front part of your thigh. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three to four times for each leg.
d. Triceps stretch-whilst standing, bring your right arm overhead and try to bring your forearm as close to your upper arm. Take your left hand and place it on top of your right elbow and slowly apply backward pressure. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three to four times for each tricep.
Static stretching helps people maintain flexibility and joint range of motion as they age. It also corrects muscular imbalances, such as when one side of the body is tighter than the other.
Static stretching is best done after a workout because it helps re-lengthen the muscles that have tightened during the workout. It is not recommended to do static stretching before intense physical activity because the pre-lengthening of muscles can decrease the power output of the muscles. This has been studied to decrease performance.
To conclude, incorporate both types of stretching into your fitness programme. Do dynamic stretching before working out and then do static stretching after your workout.
Sometimes stretching and weight lifting exercise are used interchangeably. However, stretches and exercises are completely different and serve vastly different purposes.
Stretching is the act of stretching a muscle, as the name implies. It's just like stretching a rubber band, you take the muscle from it's initial state and stretch to lengthen the muscle. This increases the degree of flexibility in that particular muscle. A minimal number of calories are expended due to the very low intensity of stretching.
Weight lifting exercise is quite the opposite of stretching. During a resistance training exercise, you take a muscle from it's rested state and contract, or shorten that muscle. Due to the degree of force required, it does expend a significant number of calories.
Weight lifting does decrease your flexibility, due to the continual contraction of muscle groups. Furthermore, following a relatively intense training workout, your muscles will undergo severe muscle trauma, resulting in muscle soreness and a reduction in your flexibility of the muscles that are subject to this microscopic damage.
Even though stretching and weight lifting exercise are quite different from each other, they compliment each other effectively. If you do lift weights regularly (and most people should for general health alone), then stretching is important to maintain a good degree of flexibility. The benefits of regular stretching are discussed in a previous post of mine, The Benefits of Stretching.
Let's consider an example of a stretches and weight lifting exercises that targets the same muscles, the calf, located between the knee and ankle on the back of your lower leg. I have chosen this particular muscle group because the stretch and corresponding weight lifting exercise is very similar in nature.
A common method to stretch your calf is to stand on a step with the front of your foot, and drop your heel down below the step height. You will feel a stretch behind your shin. This will enhance the flexibility through the calf.
Meanwhile, a common calf exercise is a standing calf raise, as shown in the diagram below:
You can see that the person begins in a stretch (as per the flexibility exercise described above), but then presses up onto his toes into a full contraction, where the calf muscles are shortened in this position. He then lowers his heels back into a stretch.
As you can see from this example, stretching is quite different to lifting weights.
Hopefully this has shed some light on this particular topic of the difference between stretches and weight lifting exercises.
Muscle soreness after exercise can be quite uncomfortable (sometimes painful). What exactly does muscle soreness mean and can you really prevent muscle soreness by stretching?
Muscle soreness is very commonly misunderstood within the health and fitness industry. It is commonplace for one to assume that muscle soreness is directly related to the effectiveness of a workout and that muscle soreness can be avoided altogether by stretching more. Both of these assumptions are incorrect.
Let's begin with the jargon - the muscle soreness that we are discussing is called "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness", or "DOMS" for those who like acronyms. This muscle soreness will often peak within 24-72 hours following a strenuous workout, or, following the relatively strenuous use of muscles in a new manner.
DOMS is typically most apparent when you first initiate a new exercise regime. The next day after your first workout can be a killer! You can be aching from head to toe in muscles that you never knew you had before!
Alternatively, if you've just taken a month long holiday, your first week of may make you extremely stiff, because you haven't used those muscles in such a manner in an extended period of time.
The muscle soreness after exercise that you experience is not a direct function of the "effectiveness" of your workout - no matter what your goal, whether that be weight loss, gaining muscle, toning, enhancing your fitness etc. You can have a highly effective workout and not feel any muscle soreness at all. This is because DOMS is more a function of the degree of inflammatory from microscopic trauma induced as a result of a bout of physical exercise. This trauma is most prevalent when your muscles are subjected to an activity that they are not conditioned for.
When you experience delayed onset muscle soreness, you will notice that you become tight. The flexibility of your muscles diminishes significantly. It is the reduction of flexibility that often leads to the incorrect assumption that if you were to stretch more following a workout, this would avoid any muscle soreness the following day. Not so.
As mentioned, muscle soreness is a result of trauma induced within muscle tissue. It has nothing to do with flexibility. Following your workout, you will be very flexible because the muscles would have warmed up and thus become far more elastic. Yet as soon as they cool down and the inflammation becomes realised (ie. the pain sets in), the muscles will tighten right up.
Does stretching assist in overcoming DOMS? No. Stretching will enhance your flexibility, but it will not speed up the rate at which your muscles are able to repair the trauma from exercise. The muscle's recovery is a physiological process that is independent from lengthening the muscle (ie. stretching).
Muscle soreness very acute when you begin to stretch the muscle. Therefore, if you are more flexible, the muscles won't be stretched quite as much (relatively speaking). This can relieve the discomfort that you may feel in day to day activities (like walking after exercising your legs). However, good flexibility will not decrease the amount of trauma that has been induced.
The great thing about muscle soreness after exercise is that it's a very profound reminder of the effort that you invested during your exercise session. Call me crazy, but think of this as a trophy that you can carry around with you for days after your exercise session!
As uncomfortable as the muscle pain may be, it is something that we all have to deal with. It is usually most profound within the first week of exercise, so if you can get over that initial hump, you'll be home free!