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How and When You Should Stretch

We have all heard the importance of stretching. However, when we talk about stretching, what comes to mind? Some of you may be picturing bending over, touching your toes, and holding it until your face turns blue. While others may be envisioning reaching over head real quick and calling it a day. Stretching seems to be a vague term that leads to lots of questions and uncertainty when it comes to proper technique, when it should be done, and what it actually does for your body. Stretching is defined as “physical form of exercise where a targeted muscle or group of muscles is placed on gentle tension (1).” Hmm, that definition didn’t provide much clarity, did it?

Stretching is commonly performed before and/or after exercise. The overall goal of stretching it to improve flexibility, enhance movement, reduced injury risk, and keep your body loose and ready for action. There are numerous benefits to stretching and it can be performed in combination with physical exercise or independent of it. Studies have shown that stretching increases both flexibility AND strength of the musculotendinous unit (2).

The biggest question most patients have is “How long do I hold a stretch for?” Most of us remember back to our childhood Phys Ed class when they had us hold stretches for at least thirty seconds. However, we have come a long way since then. Current research has proven that prolonged stretching, when performed before activity, may not be as beneficial as we originally thought.

Static vs. dynamic stretching

Static stretching is a prolonged lengthening of a muscle to the point of mild discomfort that is held from a minimum of thirty seconds to a maximum of two minutes (4). It is performed when the body is at rest and with the intention of delivering a relaxing sensation towards the muscle being stretched. A static stretch is typically performed three to five times per muscle stretched.

Dynamic stretching is controlled body movements which gently take a muscle or joint to a point of mild discomfort and repetitively moves through a challenging range (4). This type of stretching works at taking the body part being stretched further with each repetition. A dynamic stretch is generally held three to five seconds in duration and performed at a higher frequency of fifteen to twenty repetitions.

Both dynamic and static stretching have their benefits. To achieve optimal results dynamic stretching should be utilized prior to physical activity, and static stretching to be performed after activity.

Dynamic stretching is a great way to warm up the body prior to physical exertion. It helps maximize your performance by mimicking the movements your body will be performing, prepares joints for movement, and begins engaging the muscles for activation (3). By performing quick, yet controlled, continuous on/off dynamic stretches we set an appropriate tone and atmosphere for our muscles. Overall, it helps increase core temperature, increase muscle temperature, improve flexibility, stimulate the nervous system, and decreases the chance of injury (4).

Static stretching performed before exercise or an athlete’s sporting event may actually hinder an individual’s performance and impair muscle function. (1) When a muscle is placed on a prolonged stretch (static hold) it impairs its neurological function, decreases explosive power, decreases muscle strength, and decreases power during performance (1). That doesn’t mean static stretching is bad! Static stretching is great for AFTER physical activity. As opposed to dynamic stretching, static stretching helps your body decrease the core temperature and relaxes your muscles, providing a calming sensation. Prolonged hold of a stretch can effectively increase flexibility, reduce injury risk, and aid in muscle recovery (4).

Although stretching should be an integral part of our daily routines most of us fail to go beyond the quick morning yawn and reaching overhead type of stretch. I hear my patients say to me on a daily basis “I know I should stretch more, I just can’t find the time.” Don’t let lack of time be an excuse. A quick daily stretching routine (with or without an exercise regimen) will save you time (and money) from injury in the long run!

References
1. Foster, Elizabeth. “Stretching before Workouts May Weaken Muscles, Impair Athletic Performance: Studies.” National Post. Web. Dec. 8, 2016.
2. Peterson, Lars, Per Renstrom, and William A. Grana. Sports Injuries: Their Prevention and Treatment. Chicago: Year Book Medical, 1986.
3. Mann, D. and Jones, M. (1999) “Guidelines to the implementation of a dynamic stretching routine” Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21 (6), p. 53-55.
4. Tollision, T. (2007) Static vs. Dynamic Flexibility https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni43a4.htm

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