Stretching Exercises Are a Must for Complete Fitness
Stretching exercises should be part of everyone's regular workout routine. One of the great challenges we face in developing a successful habit in taking care of our bodies is the time it takes to do a workout. The beginners workout we offer on our website are designed to work the basic core muscle groups and cardiovascular in a reasonable amount of time for the vast majority of people.
The basic core workout for beginners does not include the time necessary for stretching. You really must include that as part of your workout.
Benefits of stretching
Most aerobic and strength training programs cause muscles to contract and flex. Often times people who train with weights regularly lose their flexibility. They work the muscles without stretching the muscle tissues. Regular stretching is a necessity for overall health and fitness. Stretching exercises will:
Improve your flexibility, which will improve your daily performance. Everyday chores and jobs become easier and less tiring.
improves range of motion of your joints. Good range of motion keeps you in better balance, which will help keep you mobile and less prone to falls — and the related injuries — especially as you age.
improve circulation. Stretching increase blood flow to your muscles. Improved circulation can speed recovery after muscle injuries.
relieve stress. Stretching relaxes the tense muscles that often accompany stress. Relaxing the muscles will help you relax your mind.
help prevent athletic injuries according to some studies; however, this finding remains controversial. Other studies don't support stretching as a way to prevent injury. In our non-scientific experience flexibility absolutely helps prevent injuries, especially in contact sports.
What stretching exercises entail
Stretching exercises are a physical exercise where skeletal muscles are deliberately stretched to improve the muscle's flexibility and muscle tone.
When the muscle is more flexible there is a feeling of increased muscle control and improved range of motion.
Stretching is a natural and instinctive activity for both humans and animals. When you get up from a nights sleep or sitting for a long period of time what do you instinctively do? Stretch. You see animals do the same thing. Many yoga stretches derive their names from observing animals stretch.
Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic components of physical fitness. It is common for athletes to do stretching before and after working out.
Many people practice Yoga which generally involves doing stretching exercises for major muscle groups. Stretching can strengthen muscles as well.
Like any workout routine you do need to do stretching properly. There are many stretching techniques in general, but depending on which muscle group is being worked, some techniques may be ineffective or detrimental, even to the point of causing permanent damage to the tendons, ligaments and muscle fiber.
Gymnasts, dancers, martial artists all demonstrate grace, strength, and flexibility. You may not need nor want to become that flexible. If you do stretching exercises correctly and regularly you will become more flexible.
In order to understand correct stretching techniques we should have basic knowledge about the soft tissues that are being stretched.
There are a number of factors that influence flexibility.
1. An older muscle has less flexibility due to the changes in the muscle and collagen in the connective tissues that occurs with aging.
2. A muscle that has been immobilized will demonstrate a loss of flexibility over time.
3. Excessive training increases stiffness.
4. Increase in temperature causes improved flexibility. This can be environmental temperature or temperature from the warming of the body due to physical activity. It is no different than a metallurgist who works with hot metal to shape it. Stretching exercises therefore should be performed after your body is completely warmed up.
5. An increase in fluid in the muscle cell can decrease flexibility.
6. Muscles and tendons were designed to protect themselves from being pulled or stretched too far. There are special nerves within the muscle that are sensitive to changes in muscle length and tension. When a muscle is stretched a message is sent to the central nervous system causing a reflex contraction of the muscle. The contraction works in opposition to the stretch helping to prevent over-stretching or pulling the muscle.
7. When a stretch is maintained for more than 6 seconds your body responds to the increased muscle tension by signaling central nervous system to relax the muscle. This means that stretching exercises should be done slowly with a gradual increase in the range of movement every few seconds. The total duration of the stretch should be about 20 seconds.
An alternative concept that some trainers use is to do stretching exercises that force you to contract the muscle group that works opposite to the one you are stretching. By doing that the muscle you want to stretch is relaxed and you can stretch it more with less tension. For example, to stretch the hamstring you can enlist the use of the quadriceps to force the hamstring to relax while you stretch that muscle.
The connective tissues in and around muscles are considered to be 'passive' or 'non-contractile'. The principal structure in these tissues is collagen.
Callogen is made up of viscous and elastic properties. A viscous tissue will deform and stay deformed permanently. For example, if you pull on a piece of putty, it will keep that new shape. An elastic tissue (think rubber band) will return to its original length when the force is removed.
Viscoelasticity describes a property of tissues such as collagen, where it will stretch, then stay stretched for a while before slowly returning to its original length. Viscoelasticity tells us a number of practical things about stretching the connective tissues in muscle:
1. Studies suggest there is no extra benefit from stretching a muscle 10 times in one session.
2. It takes 12-18 seconds to reach stress relaxation, so there is no need to hold a stretch for longer than 20 seconds.
3. Do passive stretches SLOWLY. Once elongated, length changes are not rapidly reversible due to the viscous nature of the tissue. However, deformations are not permanent because the elastic properties will eventually bring the tissue back to its original length.
4. Lasting changes come from adaptive remodeling of the connective tissues. There is some evidence that the temporary change in length following a stretch may start to regress after four hours.
How stretching happens
A number of physical properties of viscoelastic tissues help describe how these tissues elongate with stretching. These properties are creep, load relaxation and hysteresis.
Creep describes the ability of a tissue to elongate over time when a constant force is placed on it.
Load relaxation explains how less force is necessary to maintain a tissue at a specific length over time.
Hysteresis describes the amount of lengthening a tissue will maintain after a cycle of stretching and relaxing.
Different stretching types
Held static stretches are done so that the joints are placed in the outer limits of the available range and then subjected to a continuous passive stretch. This type of stretching is ideal to stretch the connective tissue elements since it makes use of the viscoelastic properties to cause elongation of the tissue. Furthermore, it makes use of the six- second rule.
1. Dynamic Range of Motion describes a type of stretch whereby a muscle is taken through a full, slow and large amplitude movement. The opposing muscles are used to produce the force in this type of stretching. This type of stretching is done under control and is not jerky in nature.
See this example:
2. Ballistic stretching is done fast and rapidly and through large ranges of motion. An example is leg swings to stretch the hamstrings. The benefit of this type of stretching is that it is sport- specific to ballistic sports and it allows integration of the 'stretch reflex' if done quite often over a period of time. As the neuromuscular system adapts to this stretching, the stretch reflex will minimize its contribution to limiting muscle range.
3. Bouncing is similar to ballistic, but it is performed in small oscillations at the end of range. The dangers of ballistic stretching exercises and bouncing stretching exercises are that they can lead to significant muscle soreness caused by the rapid lengthening of the muscle. This in itself initiates the stretch reflex and increases muscle tension. Furthermore, it fails to provide adequate time for the tissues to adapt to the stretch.
PNF (PROPRIOCEPTIVE NEUROMUSCULAR FACILITATION)
PNF uses the concept that muscle relaxation is fundamental to elongation of muscle tissue. PNF stretching exists in a number of different forms, but the only ones discussed here will be the contract relax (CR), hold-relax (HR) and contract relax and antagonist contraction (CRAC) stretching exercises.
a) Contract Relax (CR) method is when the muscle to be stretched is passively taken to end of range. Maximum contraction of the muscle to be stretched is performed against resistance (usually another person). This is continued for at least six seconds. The muscle is then relaxed and taken to a new range and held for about 20 seconds. This can be repeated 3-4 times.
Here is one example:
b) Hold Relax (HR) is very similar to contract relax with the difference being the contraction type is static. The muscle to be stretched is passively taken to end of range. Maximum contraction of the muscle to be stretched is performed against resistance (usually another person). With this form of contraction, the muscle does not shorten during its isometric contraction. This is continued for at least six seconds. The muscle is then relaxed and taken to a new range and held for about 20 seconds. This can be repeated 3-4 times.
Here is example:
c) Contract Relax Antagonist Contraction (CRAC) The first part of this stretch is similar to the CR method above; however, when the muscle to be stretched is relaxed after its six- second contraction, the OPPOSITE OR ANTAGONIST muscle is contracted for at least six seconds. The antagonist is then relaxed and the stretched muscle is taken to a new range.
Stretch to Win is probably one of the best available resources on stretching. The authors have their own institute and train physical therapists, athletic trainers, doctors, and host of others in the proper way to stretch. We will give you some basic stretching routines here but highly recommend the book Stretch to Win.
A good stretching routine cannot be done quickly. The stretching exercises you choose to do may take just as long as your regular workout depending on the intensity of your workout.
For the average person who wants to stay fit but simply doesn't have the time to commit to a serious workout we would suggest you spend about 20 minutes stretching, 20 minutes with some combination of strength training and aerobic exercise. You should also walk as much as possible during the day. An hour of the day for physical fitness is a reasonable goal.
Our other highly recommended programming of stretching exercises is Stretch This.
If you are interested in just seeing the host of basic stretching exercises out there you can check out