We discussed the importance of flexibility and now we are moving on to learn about the need for stretching. 

Our body instinctively stretches. Think about when you first get out of bed in the morning or after taking a long walk or after sitting for a long period of time.  We all feel the need to elongate the joint and increase circulation.  The act of stretching alone increases circulation and improves blood flow to the muscles.  We know when there is more blood flow, more nutrients and oxygen move into the cell, more waste is removed and the pH level in easier to keep in the normal range.  Here is the bad news - if a person is not active, (i.e. they sit at a computer or desk, in a car or on the couch for long periods of time); they might have a circulation problem.  Most people notice circulation problems in their hands and feet first.   A simple remedy is to move around, and specifically, to stretch your muscles. In fact, a natural reaction after sitting for a long period of time is to stretch. The neurological system sends a message to the physiological system to move.  A general stretch is fine.  Stick out your arms, arch your back, touch your toes, wiggle your fingers, roll your shoulders or just stop and simply listen to your body and you will know exactly what to stretch to get the oxygen and nutrients moving.


Another benefit of stretching is to eliminate pain.  A common area of pain in 80% of people is the lower back.  Muscles that are tight in the hip and leg area including the quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors can cause back pain.   A nice gentle stretch can often eliminate the pain all together.

Stretching is also good for the heart.  Recent studies support the fact that stretching lowers blood pressure and improves the function of the arteries in the body.

Finally, stretching can relieve stress!  We all experience stress.  So how does stretching relieve stress?  This is simple. When the muscles are elongated, circulation is stimulated thus relieving the tension in the muscle.  We experience tension in a variety of ways including tension headaches, hand and arm fatigue, neck and shoulder tension, leg cramps sleeplessness, and depression.  The solution to stress is to get moving!

Now that we understand the importance of flexibility and the need for stretching, the question becomes when and how do we stretch to best improve flexibility and range of motion.

POINT ONE:  Years ago, it was thought that stretching prior to exercise was a great deterrent to injuries, however, as the result of a great deal of scientific research, we now know that you should never stretch a muscle that hasn’t been sufficiently warmed up with exercise or vigorous activity.  For most everyone, that means that stretching before a workout is a very bad idea.  In fact, today, studies support the fact that stretching is most beneficial following a workout.   We now know, for certain, that it is important to elongate a muscle (stretch) only after it has been placed under contraction from vigorous use.  Another benefit to stretching post exercise is to aid relaxation and to promote recovery after a workout.

 

POINT TWO:  Most studies have found that you need to stretch most every joint in your body three or more times per week to maximize optimal range of motion.  In other words, stretching is joint specific.  Just because you can touch your toes does not mean you are flexible!  It simply means you have adequate flexibility in the hip in the forward bend position.   For most joints in the body there must be functional range of motion and with every joint the range is different based on the type of joint it is as well as the tendon, ligament and muscle configuration and attachments.  For example, the hinge joint in your knee and elbow has different ranges of motion compared to the hip and shoulder which is a ball and socket joint.  So first learn the primary joints in your body that are linked to locomotion and movement like the neck, shoulder, chest, back, arms, hips, legs and ankle.  Then select a stretching routine that you can do daily that will benefit each joint.

 

POINT THREE:  You need to understand that stretching can be either dynamic or static.  Dynamic (involving motion) flexibility, also called kinetic flexibility, is the ability to perform fluid movements of muscles using full range of motion.  Very often this is a bouncing type of movement.  Conversely, static (involving no motion) flexibility is the ability to assume and maintain a position using the tension of the opposing muscle groups.  An example of static stretching would be to reach forward to a point of tension and hold.  Most researchers and coaches prefer static over dynamic stretching initially due to the reduced risk of injury since momentum is not involved in static stretches.  I agree.  If you are a beginner, start with static stretches.  As you warm up and improve your body awareness and skill you can move to more advanced methods of stretching.

POINT FOUR:  When you are stretching it is very important to stay in proper alignment all through the motion ending with a mildly elongated point and holding there.  Never push the stretch to the point of pain.  Allow neurological messaging to occur between the muscle and brain for about 10-30 seconds and then you can reach a little more and take the stretch a bit further.  The stretch should be performed in a gently, fluid and slow progressive way.  Avoid ballistic/bounce stretching of a muscle or muscle group as this can increase the risk of muscle strains or tears.

POINT FIVE:  Finally, make sure you are breathing through the stretch.  The muscles need the oxygen and this helps the circulation process as well.

Keep in mind you can stretch almost anywhere and at any time.  You don’t need specific equipment, a personal trainer or a gym and the benefits of stretching are immediate and long-lasting.   So let’s all stand up and reach for the stars!  Hold it….breath….relax!  I want to encourage you to incorporate different stretches throughout your day…keep the circulation moving and the joints limber.