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The Importance of Stretching

Rest, recovery and regular muscular management are essential to a healthy balance within your exercise regime. This practice should be adopted by all who participate in activity ranging from beginners to the elite population. By consistently stretching prior to and post exercise you reduce your risk of injury and enhance your potential for performance as well as overall flexibility. 
There are several ways in which to stretch with varying degrees of tension, lengths of time the stretch is held and if the stretch involves active movement or is performed by one person to another. Lets first begin by clarifying some of the basic stretching techniques available so to give better understanding to the terminology exercise professionals may use.

Static: A stretch which is perform whilst the body is at rest. This is the most common form of stretching found in general fitness and is considered safe and effective for improving overall flexibility post exercise. However, many experts consider static stretching much less beneficial than dynamic stretching for improving range of motion for functional movement, including sports and activities for daily living.

Dynamic: This describes a stretch preformed through a range of movement to a comfortable but challenging end. A movement may be repeated between 10-15 times to aid in warming and elongating the muscle and preparing it for exercise. Dynamic stretching is most effective if preformed pre exercise in the majority of sports and activities. Dynamic stretches are smooth and controlled deliberate actions.

Ballistic: This describes a stretch preformed in an active movement but with a slight bounce or jerk. This can be a dangerous way to stretch unless supervised by an appropriate professional. Research suggests the risks far outweigh the benefits of this specific stretching technique. It is a rarely adopted strategy in the exercise field now a days.

PNF: Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, otherwise known as active isolated stretching , describes a stretching technique in which the aim is to increase ones overall range of movement and flexibility potential. The stretch requires active resistance and is performed by a person with guidance of their trainer or coach or trusted advisor.

Active: When performing active stretches you rely solely on your opposing muscle to contract initiating the relaxation and lengthening of the targeted muscle. You do not utilise equipment, straps or the help of others in this technique. It is relatively low risk as its is controlled by your own strength, range of movement and existing muscular flexibility.

Passive: This describes a stretch in which you are aided to perform. This aid may come from a band, strap, leverage, gravity or your body weight but most commonly comes from the help of another person or appropriate exercise professional. To perform this stretch you relax the targeted muscle and rely upon the external force/aid to hold the stretch and not the contraction of the opposing muscle.

Developmental: This is a term used to describe the effectiveness of the stretch on increasing the overall flexibility of the muscle. Developmental stretches should be those held upwards of 1 minute to allow lengthening and muscular acceptance of the stretch.

There are many researchers that devote studies to the exact mechanisms behind each stretching style and comparatively report effects of the appropriate use of each. Arguments for and against each style are presented though the important consideration is : Does it work for you!

The majority of exercise professionals would begin each session with dynamic based stretching specific to the needs of the exercise session being preformed. This is to facilitate an increased blood flow, warm the muscles allowing elasticity, prepare joints for active continuous movements and reduce your risk of injury. The session would generally, in most cases end with slow, controlled static stretches to aid in recovery, relaxation, flexibility and overall cool down the muscles.

Stretching regularly pre and post exercise may indirectly improve flexibility which is essentially the effectiveness of the muscle at bending/lengthening without injury, strain or tear . However, it is almost impossible to improve one's flexibility if you have existing muscular fascia adhesions ( A stiffening/contraction or shortening of the muscles thin covering membrane) joint or connective tissue dysfunctions or lack sufficient neural or neuromuscular efficiency.  If you do particularly struggle with your flexibility seeking the advice of a sports therapist, physiotherapist or relevant professional like a personal trainer or sport and exercise scientist may shed some light on ways in which you may overcome this barrier thus improving your exercise potential and overall health.  

What that regular stretching does create is greater extensibility, this is a term used to describe the resistance of a muscle whilst it lengthens. To reduce the resistance of the muscle whilst performing a stretch ultimately creates a more compliant muscle which will, if stretched regularly, increase in length.

Your stretching session prior to your exercise should be preformed once warm, Initially raising your heart rate, for example with a 5 minute jog, cycle etc to begin, will increase blood flow to muscles and heat through the fibres allowing your stretching session to be more effective in preparing the muscles, joints and connective tissues for your exercise.

The most widely given advice by professionals in relation to stretching is this:
Do it regularly & mix it up !!
One technique will not give you all the benefits you require for adequate or improved flexibility, Engage your muscles with  static, active, passive and dynamic stretches.

Important Considerations
  • Maintain good posture whilst stretching.
  • Do not sacrifice quality of a stretch over quantity of the movement.
  • Hold a stretch to the point of challenge not pain.
  • Stretch regularly for better, sustainable results.
  • Stretch both before and after your exercise sessions.
  • Stretch on rest days to give relaxation and good postural form.
Stretching sessions can be requested, designed and prescribed to specific personal sporting requirements.

Sheli J McCoy (MRes, BSc Hons SES)

Sheli J McCoy (MRes, BSc Hons SES)
Sports science rehabilitation specialist
Owner & Head Therapist of "Complete Phyzique" ltd.