A Little Flex Goes a Long Way

I realized yesterday that I started this stretching thing with relatively little info about stretching, how and when to do it, why it’s important, you know…some basics! So it’s back to basics today, with a few important things about this ‘thing’ that I’m starting.

Flexibility is essentially your ability to move a joint through a full range of motion. Tight muscles surrounding a joint can impede it’s ability to move freely and limit the range through which that joint may move.  This can result in some imbalances in the body, as the tight muscles shorten and opposing muscles and other assisting muscles may lengthen or work harder in performing a movement than they should. Altered movement patterns can throw the body out of alignment and cause a cascade of problems reaching from head to toe.

To improve flexibility and correct minor problems before they become severe, or more importantly – prevent them from occurring in the first place,  a stretching program (note to self: a regular and consistent stretching program!) should be implemented.

First, some basic info so we can start to build a (regular and consistent!) stretching program. There are actually several types of stretching:

What? That's me, I swear!

Static Stretching – this is what most people think of when they think of stretching: passively stretching a muscle just to the point of feeling a mild stretch or very slight discomfort and holding in place anywhere from 20 or 30 seconds up to about a minute. Some examples of this kind of stretching are the quadriceps stretch, the triceps stretch, and the others I’ve been incorporating at the end of my workouts.

Ballistic Stretching – uses similar movements to Static Stretching, but instead of holding in place to stretch the muscles, a repetitive and explosive bounce is used to achieve a deeper stretch that tends to push you past your current range of motion. This type of stretching is generally not considered safe (read: not recommended!).

Dynamic Stretching – these are movements that slowly and gently move the muscle through a progressively larger range of motion used to perform a particular exercise. Unlike static stretching, there is constant movement and the progression towards a full range of motion is gradual. This constant, smooth motion increases blood flow to the muscles and warms the body-up.  Click here for an example of a dynamic stretch for the back.

PNF Stretching – PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (umm, let’s just use PNF!) and is performed with a partner who generally alternates periods of facilitating the stretch and relaxing the stretch.

Sooo…what to do now that I know all of this?

A lot of people think “stretch before and after exercise,” and that is a good idea but it’s important to distinguish between the type of stretching performed at each point. I’d recommend dynamic stretching prior to or included as part of your warm-up, and static or PNF (if you’ve got a partner that knows how to properly facilitate this) stretching after your workout.

The dynamic stretch is a great way to increase blood flow to ‘cold’ muscles, and prepare the body for the movement to come in the workout. Performing a static stretch on a cold muscle is often likened to trying to stretch a rubber band after it’s been in the freezer. Snap! Kind of makes you shudder, right?!  The static stretch is best at the end of your workout when your body and muscles have been fully worked and warmed.

Next – what exactly does “program” mean, anyway?

Well really, in my opinion there’s no need to go overboard. A lot of people (myself included, until recently) feel like stretching requires a great deal of time to go through an extensive list of stretches over and over. Not the case! A few minutes spent stretching each day is really all you need. Sometimes we can get caught up in the details – the important thing here is doing it regularly, and performing it with intention and focus. One or two sets of a few (2-3) dynamic movements prior to beginning your workout and after your warm-up coupled with a few (3-4) targeted static stretches at the end (what muscles did you work? or, what feels tight?) of your workout will save you in time and likely in pain later.

I’m happy to say that Week 3 is progressing nicely for me, I’ve got one more stretching session and one DVD session remaining to meet my goal for the week.  For the record, I’m trying to implement my static stretching program – for some reason, I’m comfortable with and have always included a few dynamic movements prior to training. That said, I feel confident I’ll get this done and meet my goal for the week…I’m actually beginning to look forward to my stretching. It’s almost like a reward! It’s that “ahhh….that feels good” that comes from knowing I worked hard, and my body feels good.

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