Two common questions I am asked are: “Should I stretch?” and “When should I stretch?”
Unknowingly they are asking a bit of a loaded question. There are many different forms of stretching, some relatively modern, some more “traditional”.
My routine answer is “Yes you should stretch, but there are certain forms of stretching you should utilise at specific intervals in your workout”
DON’T static stretch (holding a stretch without moving for 15-30 seconds) at the beginning of a workout.
Most people are taught the importance of warm-up exercises at school, and likely continue with pretty much the same routines in adult life. Science, however, has moved on. The old presumption that holding a static stretch at the beginning of your workout primes your muscles is wrong. It actually weakens them. Think about it; as part of your preparation for a dynamic, possibly explosive workout / training session / sporting event, why would you do the very opposite with your muscles and joints to what will be required of them in a few short minutes?
As a martial artist I am more than aware of the hundreds of clubs around the UK that still adopt this old fashioned static stretching way of warming up (or more accurately cooling down) before engaging in a quite explosive activity. It is a problem across sport, even in some professional clubs!
In a 2008 study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent! Not ideal for gym goers and certainly not for athletes! Stretching one leg’s muscles can also reduce strength in the other leg as well, due to the central nervous system rebelling against the movements. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which again is not how anybody wants to begin their workout. Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. (ROM) Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response.
Dynamic Stretching at the beginning of a workout
Effective, safe warm ups should increase body heat, blood flow and loosen your muscles and tendons enabling an increased ROM in your joints. When at rest, there’s less blood supply to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen.
“You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” ‘Duane Knudson’ - a professor of kinesiology at California State University.
Dynamic stretching involves repetitively moving a joint or group of joints (whilst keeping the heart rate elevated) in order to increase your ROM and open up your neuromuscular pathways.
Guidelines for dynamic stretching:
- Carry out 8-20 repetitions each movement
- Progressively increase Range of Movement
- Gradually increase speed of motion
- Do not sacrifice good technique for additional ROM
Dynamic stretching is an important physical rehearsal of the movements you are about to undertake in your workout / activity. It also helps to mentally prepare and motivate you for the workout ahead and also reduces the risk of injury.
Basic dynamic stretches include squats and lunges for the legs, arm drives for the shoulders and stretching the arms out to the side, back and forth for the chest. Athletes should also replicate “match movements” in their dynamic warm up / stretching.
Post workout stretching
At the end of a workout I always prescribe static stretches. When you exercise, you increase tension in the muscles which are also in a slightly contracted state. It is always good to take 10- 15 minutes out to calm down physically and try to re-lengthen your muscles slightly. Hold each stretch for approximately 12-15 seconds. Stretches should feel uncomfortable BUT NOT PAINFUL. Never bounce your stretches and always try to maintain a straight back.
Working with several clients who come to me with back, knee, hip, shoulder injuries ect, over the years I have found stretching incredibly useful in reducing tension in surrounding muscle groups and joints which therefore, in turn, alleviates stress on the injured area and allows it to heal efficiently.
Static stretching is relatively basic and quite safe to do on your own. It can increase flexibility if undertaken regularly on warm muscles. I personally find that stretching makes me feel relaxed physically and mentally after a workout.
When I am working ‘hands on’ with my clients, I regularly employ further advanced (and more effective) methods of stretching. If you feel you have significantly tight muscles or have an injury, it may be worth consulting a recommended trainer and ask them about PNF stretching – Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. Muscle tightness, if left untreated can lead to poor posture, undesirable skeletal alignment and further injuries.
In conclusion, I do recommend static stretching as part of a cool down routine but certainly not at the beginning of a session. As for dynamic stretching, I love it and highly suggest you integrate it into your warm up routine. If unsure please consult a professional (not a magazine, internet or TV article) to ensure are doing the stretches correctly.
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