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ARTICLES

Scientific Stretching

Somya Sahay

Anyone who is looking to be pain free and have optimal performance needs to consider the importance of a balanced physical body. To the extent that our bodies accumulate excessive amounts of tension, our systems can develop imbalances and dysfunctions. When we understand which tissues are short and tight, we can perform corrective stretching to bring the body back into balance. Let's take a look at some of the benefits of stretching:

Why Should I Stretch?

Stretching can improve posture. Posture is defined as the position from which movement begins and ends. Any dysfunction in posture, therefore, leads to faulty loading mechanics and puts unnecessary stress on the body. Stretching can be used to bring the body back into alignment. Please note that optimal posture requires certain length/tension relationships to exist between muscles; stretching too much of one muscle can make your posture worse. 

Stretching is a stress-reliever. Often times, stress manifests physically in certain areas of our body (most commonly the neck & shoulders). Stretching can help alleviate that tension, making you feel calm and relaxed. 

Stretching reduces the risk of injury. If you push past the threshold for your muscle's ability to extend, you can easily tear it. Stretching improves your range of motion, reducing risk of injury.

Stretching can alleviate pains associated with muscle tightness. When muscles become too tight, they can often lead to debilitating pain/inflammation, such as: plantar fasciitis, knee/elbow pain, headaches, etc. If the pains are related to muscle tightness, stretching will help alleviate them. 

Why Stretching Every Muscle is a BAD Idea

Postural alignment is the balance between your muscles and requires certain lengths/tensions to exist. Having a muscle too tight or too loose will put you out of alignment, setting you up for injury and diminished performance. 

Example: The relationship between your hip flexors/glutes/hamstrings and lower abdominals/low back muscles can make your pelvis either tilt too far forward or too far backward, depending on which group is tighter. Variations outside of the optimal range (I.e. Males 4-7°; females 7-10° anteriorly) can lead to severe injury--most commonly in the low back. 

While stretching is imperative to good health, having too much mobility can destabilize joints. As such, do NOT stretch what does not need to be stretched! If you are having trouble identifying which muscles are out of balance, we advise reaching out to a C.H.E.K. Practitioner (such as one of our Fresh Holistics coaches) or a skilled therapist for a proper length/tension & comparative range of motion assessment. 

How Should I Stretch?

Before starting any stretching routine, make sure your body is warm and hydrated. A cold body increases your chance of injury and reduces the effectiveness of the stretching program. Having said that, there are 3 basic stretching techniques that we find are best used in different circumstances. These are:

  • Static Stretching
  • Contract-Relax
  • Dynamic Stretching

Static stretching is the most commonly prescribed method of stretching. It is defined by holding a stretched position for a prolonged period of time. While this is effective in improving flexibility, it is not ideal before a workout or event requiring at least moderate intensity. If a stretch is held statically for prolonged periods of time the muscle spindle cells cannot communicate effectively with the brain. This creates a discrepancy between what your body can perform and what your brain thinks it can perform. This disconnection can lead to altered movement patterns, motor control loss, and destabilization of joints--greatly increasing your risk of injury. Static stretching is best used for corrective stretching in the evening before bed when your activity level is low. 

Contract-Relax is a much more effective method for pre-event corrective stretching if significant ROM (range of motion) is needed. This is defined by short periods (typically 3-5 sec) of muscle contraction followed by short periods of muscle lengthening. 
    
 Example: Start with the muscle in a slightly stretched position. Taking a deep             diaphragmatic breathe in--hold it. Contract your muscle for 5s. Exhale after the             contraction and immediately go deeper into the stretch (for 5s). Repeat 3-5 times. 

This sudden increase in ROM is due to the autogenic inhibition reflex. The autogenic inhibition reflex is the sudden relaxation of a muscle after contraction under high tension to prevent itself from injury. Use the contract-relax method for corrective stretching before workouts if extensive range of motion is needed. Otherwise, use dynamic stretching for pre-workout mobilization. 

Dynamic stretching is a much better alternative to static stretching for pre-workout mobility. It is performed by repeatedly moving into and out of ranges of motion until muscles loosen up, holding no one position for more than a second. This stretch involves constant motion and feedback to the brain. It is best to mimic the general movement patterns you will be performing for the given task ahead. We recommend always performing a dynamic stretching routine before exercise, whether you are in the corrective phase of your flexibility program or your maintenance phase. 

When Should I Stretch?

There are essentially two circumstances for which stretching is necessary. The first is corrective, stretching to bring the body back into alignment. The second is maintenance, stretching to prevent your body from misalignment once it is already aligned. No matter which phase you are in, stretching pre-workout, post-workout, and in the evening is recommended.  

Pre-workout:
Stretching should always be performed prior to exercise. Your phase of stretching (corrective/maintenance) will determine how you stretch. If you are in the corrective phase, perform the required contract-relax stretches and follow that with dynamic stretching. If you are simply maintaining, dynamic stretching is sufficient. 

Post-Workout:
Stretching post-workout is necessary for optimal recovery as it not only restores the circulation to optimal levels but also relaxes the body, having a more anabolic (repair & recovery) effect on the body. Static stretching is a great for post-workout. 


Before bed:
Daily stretching is absolutely necessary for corrective purposes. We recommend performing your stretching routine shortly before bed, when activity levels are low. Whether you exercise or not, daily activities, especially long periods of sitting, puts a lot of tension on your musculature. For that reason, we recommend doing your maintenance stretches in the evening. The difference between your corrective stretches and your maintenance stretches will be the duration for which the stretch is performed and the muscles you will be stretching. Static stretching is best performed at this time. 

While stretching isn't the most exciting of activities, it is one that should be practiced daily if you are looking to be pain-free and perform optimally. 

 

References:

1. Chek, Paul. The Golf Biomechanic's Manual: Whole in One Golf Conditioning. 3rd ed. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K. Institute, 2001. Print.