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Stretch Your Game...

Stretching is believed to improve posture, movement and tissue nutrition, among other benefits.

Published July 07, 2010 12:00

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Stretching prior to performing some type of physical activity or athletic competition has been a standard practice in all levels of sports from the weekend warrior to the highly trained professional. The origins of stretching can be traced back to the Greeks who used it to prepare themselves for wrestling, acrobatics, and other sports. Stretching is also used in various rehabilitation settings to help the recovery process from injury. The goal of stretching is to increase an individual's flexibility and range of motion.

Justine Henin

What is Flexibility?
Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through a normal range of motion without creating an excessive amount of stress to the muscle-tendon unit. This will vary from person to person and can be influenced by things such as the associated bones and bony structures and the characteristics of the surrounding soft tissues. The human body is a complex system that needs movement to function properly. Restrictions to normal motion negatively affect function and can lead to compensation which can lead to dysfunction.

Why should I stretch? I have heard it is not always good for you.
This is true. While the use of stretching is widespread, there is conflicting scientific evidence over whether stretching reduces injury and enhances performance. Still, anecdotal and experiential evidence has supported the use of stretching throughout the ages, citing its benefits for improved posture, ease of movement, increased efficiency of tissue nutrition, and more.

The benefits of stretching are achieved through two mechanisms:
1. Neurophysiologic: Muscles that are exposed to stretching are more inhibited to the activity of the contractile component of the muscle. This inhibition results in an increased extensibility of the muscle, leading to an increase in range of motion at the joint.
2. Biomechanical: This mechanism is a result of the viscoelastic property of the muscle tissue. When force is applied through the stretch, the elastic component of the muscle causes it to elongate. When a muscle is repeatedly stretched to a certain tension, the acting force at that length will decrease over time.

These mechanisms allow for a variety of benefits which contribute to overall wellness:
1. Improved preparation for activity: Stretching helps to increase tissue temperature, reduces muscle tension, and improves tissue pliability, making movement easier and more efficient.
2. Improved tissue nutrition: By increasing circulation to the area, there is an increase in the oxygenation and nutrition of the tissues.
3. Reduced soft tissue injury: Muscle tissue that is more flexible is able to absorb more energy and move through its range without restriction.
4. Improved lymph flow: Stretching manually compresses the tissue containing the lymph vessels encouraging the movement of lymph.
5. Improved posture: A release of muscle and fascial tissue allows the body to properly align itself and combat the effects of gravity on our posture.

Although the conflicting research may cast doubt on the validity of stretching and flexibility training, it is clear that there are two distinct categories when it comes to stretching:
1. Stretching outside periods of exercise
2. Stretching prior to activity

Research shows that indeed acute stretching prior to activity does weaken the muscle and decreases force and power by approximately 2% to 5%. However, there are several studies that show that regular stretching, not prior to exercise increases force and power by 2% to 5% and reduces the chance of injury.

So it looks like the question is not whether someone should stretch but when they should stretch and what is the goal of the stretching.

Outside Exercise
For periods outside of exercise, the focus is to improve motion and relieve pain. Many people want to incorporate their stretching into their exercise routine so stretching at the end of a workout or activity is the easiest and best time to stretch to improve motion. The muscles are at their most pliable and can make good improvements in flexibility and it can save time.

There are many different types of stretching that will improve overall flexibility in the tissues and range of motion at the joints.

Static Stretching is a popular method of stretching that has been around for centuries in various applications, including yoga. It can be performed by yourself or with the help of a partner. When working in pairs, communication is essential to avoid overstretching. Often this type of stretching begins with a warm-up to increase the core temperature. The desired muscle group is stretched to a point of mild tension and is held for between 15 and 60 seconds.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) was developed in the 1940s by physical therapists and utilizes two main techniques. While this method of stretching is highly effective, it requires a partner to perform; hence, it is best utilized under the guidance of someone experienced.

1. Hold/relax: The muscle is stretched to its end range of motion. The person being stretched holds a submaximal (10%) contraction of the target muscle for 5 to 10 seconds while the person doing the stretching resists the motion. After the 10 seconds, there is a brief pause of two seconds and then the muscle is gently stretched to its new end range of motion. The process is repeated several times.
2. Contract/relax: The muscle is stretched to its end range of motion. The person being stretched holds a submaximal (10%) contraction of the target muscle for 5 to 10 seconds while the person doing the stretching resists the motion. After a few seconds, the person being stretched is instructed to engage the opposite muscle to the one being stretched, while being assisted to the new end range of motion. The process is repeated several times.

Active Isolated Stretching

Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) was developed by Aaron Mattes and has three main principles:
1. Contract the muscle opposite to the one being stretched.
2. Hold the stretch for 1.5 to 2 seconds, performing 10 to 15 repetitions.
3. Breathe.

Active Isolated Stretching can be done on your own or with the help of a partner. When utilizing a partner, the steps to follow include:
1. Determine the muscle to be stretched.
2. Have the person being stretched take a deep breath and on the exhale, move the joint to its end range through the contraction of the muscle opposite the one being stretched.
3. At the end range, the partner should gently assist with the stretch for two seconds. The pressure should be gentle and not cause discomfort.
4. Return the limb to the starting position and repeat the movement for the desired amount of repetitions. When stretching alone, clients can use a rope to replace the assistance of the partner.

Prior to Activity
Stretching prior to activity is NOT the time to work on your flexibility. The goal here should be to warm up the tissues, improve movement in the muscles you are going to use for your activity, and get the muscles ready to contract. The proper warm up should function to loosen the muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints and literally warm up the body.

Many athletes are using a type of active stretching commonly known as Dynamic Warm Up. This is NOT ballistic stretching which involves bouncing and can actually cause injuries. Dynamic Warm Up utilizes specific movements in the patterns that will be used in the sport along with more traditional types of warm up routines to prepare the body for activity. This increases the body's temperature helping to prepare the muscles, reinforces proper movement patterns and wakes up the nervous system. You can find an entire Dynamic Warm Up routine specific to tennis on the USTA's website.

This routine can be used for other sports and activities as well.

Venus Williams

As you can see, there is a little more involved in stretching than you might have thought. Before implementing a flexibility program, contemplate the following questions:
1. What is the intent of the added flexibility? The individual person should determine his or her goals. The goals of an elderly person will be vastly different from those of an elite athlete.
2. Where is the flexibility needed? Flexibility is personal and can vary between individuals and even from one side of the body to the other. The type and intensity of the activity will help determine the best game plan for designing a flexibility program.
3. What is the best time to develop flexibility? Research shows that stretching at the wrong time can disrupt normal neuromuscular patterns in the muscle. The time to improve flexibility is not immediately before competition. Stretching to improve range of motion should be included as part of the preparation for competition during training, while a warm-up, active type of gentle stretching should be used immediately prior to activity.
4. What are the flexibility requirements? When it comes to athletes and people engaged in performance-based activities, not every sport requires the same level of flexibility. Establish a baseline according to the needs of the individual, and then customize the routine to fit the demands of the activity.

DISCLAIMER
The contents of the Game, Set, Health site, are for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, psychiatric, psychological, health care or health management advice. The materials herein are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.

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