by Brad Appleton
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When done properly, stretching can do more than just increase flexibility. According to M. Alter, benefits of stretching include:
Unfortunately, even those who stretch do not always stretch properly and hence do not reap some or all of these benefits. Some of the most common mistakes made when stretching are:
In this chapter, we will try to show you how to avoid these problems, and others, and present some of the most effective methods for realizing all the benefits of stretching.
Stretching is not warming up! It is, however, a very important part of warming up. Warming up is quite literally the process of "warming up" (i.e., raising your core body temperature). A proper warm-up should raise your body temperature by one or two degrees Celsius (1.4 to 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and is divided into three phases:
It is very important that you perform the general warm-up before you stretch. It is not a good idea to attempt to stretch before your muscles are warm (something which the general warm-up accomplishes).
Warming up can do more than just loosen stiff muscles; when done properly, it can actually improve performance. On the other hand, an improper warm-up, or no warm-up at all, can greatly increase your risk of injury from engaging in athletic activities.
It is important to note that active stretches and isometric stretches should not be part of your warm-up because they are often counterproductive. The goals of the warm-up are (according to Kurz): "an increased awareness, improved coordination, improved elasticity and contractibility of muscles, and a greater efficiency of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems." Active stretches and isometric stretches do not help achieve these goals because they are likely to cause the stretched muscles to be too tired to properly perform the athletic activity for which you are preparing your body.
The general warm-up is divided into two parts:
These two activities should be performed in the order specified above.
The general warm-up should begin with joint-rotations, starting either from your toes and working your way up, or from your fingers and working your way down. This facilitates joint motion by lubricating the entire joint with synovial fluid. Such lubrication permits your joints to function more easily when called upon to participate in your athletic activity. You should perform slow circular movements, both clockwise and counter-clockwise, until the joint seems to move smoothly. You should rotate the following (in the order given, or in the reverse order):
After you have performed the joint rotations, you should engage in at least five minutes of aerobic activity such as jogging, jumping rope, or any other activity that will cause a similar increase in your cardiovascular output (i.e., get your blood pumping). The purpose of this is to raise your core body temperature and get your blood flowing. Increased blood flow in the muscles improves muscle performance and flexibility and reduces the likelihood of injury.
The stretching phase of your warmup should consist of two parts:
It is important that static stretches be performed before any dynamic stretches in your warm-up. Dynamic stretching can often result in overstretching, which damages the muscles (see section Overstretching). Performing static stretches first will help reduce this risk of injury.
Once the general warm-up has been completed, the muscles are warmer and more elastic. Immediately following your general warm-up, you should engage in some slow, relaxed, static stretching (see section Static Stretching). You should start with your back, followed by your upper body and lower body, stretching your muscles in the following order (see section Exercise Order):
Some good static stretches for these various muscles may be found in most books about stretching. See section References on Stretching. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time to stretch all these muscles before a workout. If you are one such person, you should at least take the time to stretch all the muscles that will be heavily used during your workout.
Once you have performed your static stretches, you should engage in some light dynamic stretching: leg-raises, and arm-swings in all directions (see section Dynamic Stretching). According to Kurz, you should do "as many sets as it takes to reach your maximum range of motion in any given direction", but do not work your muscles to the point of fatigue. Remember -- this is just a warm-up, the real workout comes later.
Some people are surprised to find that dynamic stretching has a place in the warm-up. But think about it: you are "warming up" for a workout that is (usually) going to involve a lot of dynamic activity. It makes sense that you should perform some dynamic exercises to increase your dynamic flexibility.
The last part of your warm-up should be devoted to performing movements that are a "watered-down" version of the movements that you will be performing during your athletic activity. HFLTA says that the last phase of a warm-up should consist of the same movements that will be used during the athletic event but at a reduced intensity. Such sport-specific activity is beneficial because it improves coordination, balance, strength, and response time, and may reduce the risk of injury.
Stretching is not a legitimate means of cooling down. It is only part of the process. After you have completed your workout, the best way to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness (caused by the production of lactic acid from your maximal or near-maximal muscle exertion) is to perform a light warm-down. This warm-down is similar to the second half of your warm-up (but in the reverse order). The warm-down consists of the following phases:
Ideally, you should start your warm-down with about 10-20 minutes of sport-specific activity (perhaps only a little more intense than in your warm-up). In reality however, you may not always have 10-20 minutes to spare at the end of your workout. You should, however, attempt to perform at least 5 minutes of sport-specific activity in this case. The sport-specific activity should immediately be followed by stretching: First perform some light dynamic stretches until your heart rate slows down to its normal rate, then perform some static stretches. Sport-specific activity, followed by stretching, can reduce cramping, tightening, and soreness in fatigued muscles and will make you feel better.
According to HFLTA, "light warm-down exercise immediately following maximal exertion is a better way of clearing lactic acid from the blood than complete rest." Furthermore, if you are still sore the next day, a light warm-up or warm-down is a good way to reduce lingering muscle tightness and soreness even when not performed immediately after a workout. See section Pain and Discomfort.
Because of these benefits, you may wish to make massage a regular part of your stretching program: immediately before each stretch you perform, massage the muscles you are about to stretch.
According to SynerStretch, there are three factors to consider when determining the effectiveness of a particular stretching exercise:
Ideally, a particular stretch should work only the muscles you are trying to stretch. Isolating the muscles worked by a given stretch means that you do not have to worry about having to overcome the resistance offered by more than one group of muscles. In general, the fewer muscles you try to stretch at once, the better. For example, you are better off trying to stretch one hamstring at a time than both hamstrings at once. By isolating the muscle you are stretching, you experience resistance from fewer muscle groups, which gives you greater control over the stretch and allows you to more easily change its intensity. As it turns out, the splits is not one of the best stretching exercises. Not only does it stretch several different muscle groups all at once, it also stretches them in both legs at once.
Having leverage during a stretch means having sufficient control over how intense the stretch becomes, and how fast. If you have good leverage, not only are you better able to achieve the desired intensity of the stretch, but you do not need to apply as much force to your outstretched limb in order to effectively increase the intensity of the stretch. This gives you greater control.
According to SynerStretch, the best stretches (those which are most effective) provide the greatest mechanical advantage over the stretched muscle. By using good leverage, it becomes easier to overcome the resistance of inflexible muscles (the same is true of isolation). Many stretching exercises (good and bad) can be made easier and more effective simply by adjusting them to provide greater leverage.
One thing many people seem to disagree about is how long to hold a passive stretch in its position. Various sources seem to suggest that they should be held for as little as 10 seconds to as long as a full minute (or even several minutes). The truth is that no one really seems to know for sure. According to HFLTA there exists some controversy over how long a stretch should be held. Many researchers recommend 30-60 seconds. For the hamstrings, research suggests that 15 seconds may be sufficient, but it is not yet known whether 15 seconds is sufficient for any other muscle group.
A good common ground seems to be about 20 seconds. Children, and people whose bones are still growing, do not need to hold a passive stretch this long (and, in fact, Kurz strongly discourages it). Holding the stretch for about 7-10 seconds should be sufficient for this younger group of people.
A number of people like to count (either out loud or to themselves) while they stretch. While counting during a stretch is not, by itself, particularly important ... what is important is the setting of a definite goal for each stretching exercise performed. Counting during a stretch helps many people achieve this goal.
Many sources also suggest that passive stretches should be performed in sets of 2-5 repetitions with a 15-30 second rest in between each stretch.
Proper breathing control is important for a successful stretch. Proper breathing helps to relax the body, increases blood flow throughout the body, and helps to mechanically remove lactic acid and other by-products of exercise.
You should be taking slow, relaxed breaths when you stretch, trying to exhale as the muscle is stretching. Some even recommend increasing the intensity of the stretch only while exhaling, holding the stretch in its current position at all other times (this doesn't apply to isometric stretching).
The proper way to breathe is to inhale slowly through the nose, expanding the abdomen (not the chest); hold the breath a moment; then exhale slowly through the nose or mouth. Inhaling through the nose has several purposes including cleaning the air and insuring proper temperature and humidity for oxygen transfer into the lungs. The breath should be natural and the diaphragm and abdomen should remain soft. There should be no force of the breath. Some experts seem to prefer exhaling through the nose (as opposed to through the mouth) saying that exhaling through the mouth causes depression on the heart and that problems will ensue over the long term.
The rate of breathing should be controlled through the use of the glottis in the back of the throat. This produces a very soft "hm-m-m-mn" sound inside the throat as opposed to a sniffing sound in the nasal sinuses. The exhalation should be controlled in a similar manner, but if you are exhaling through the mouth, it should be with more of an "ah-h-h-h-h" sound, like a sigh of relief.
As you breathe in, the diaphragm presses downward on the internal organs and their associated blood vessels, squeezing the blood out of them. As you exhale, the abdomen, its organs and muscles, and their blood vessels flood with new blood. This rhythmic contraction and expansion of the abdominal blood vessels is partially responsible for the circulation of blood in the body. Also, the rhythmic pumping action helps to remove waste products from the muscles in the torso. This pumping action is referred to as the respiratory pump. The respiratory pump is important during stretching because increased blood flow to the stretched muscles improves their elasticity, and increases the rate at which lactic acid is purged from them.
Many people are unaware of the fact that the order in which you perform your stretching exercises is important. Quite often, when we perform a particular stretch, it actually stretches more than one group of muscles: the muscles that the stretch is primarily intended for, and other supporting muscles that are also stretched but which do not receive the "brunt" of the stretch. These supporting muscles usually function as synergists for the muscles being stretched (see section Cooperating Muscle Groups). This is the basis behind a principle that SynerStretch calls the interdependency of muscle groups.
Before performing a stretch intended for a particular muscle, but which actually stretches several muscles, you should first stretch each of that muscle's synergists. The benefit of this is that you are able to better stretch the primary muscles by not allowing the supporting muscles the opportunity to be a limiting factor in how "good" a stretch you can attain for a particular exercise.
Ideally, it is best to perform a stretch that isolates a particular muscle group, but this is not always possible. According to SynerStretch: "by organizing the exercises within a stretching routine according to the principle of interdependency of muscle groups, you minimize the effort required to perform the routine, and maximize the effectiveness of the individual exercises." This is what Health For Life (in all of their publications) calls synergism: "combining elements to create a whole that is greater than the mere sum of its parts."
For example, a stretch intended primarily for the hamstrings may also make some demands upon the calves and buttocks (and even the lower back) but mostly, it stretches the hamstrings. In this case, it would be beneficial to stretch the lower back, buttocks, and calves first (in that order, using stretches intended primarily for those muscles) before they need to be used in a stretch that is intended primarily for the hamstrings.
As a general rule, you should usually do the following when putting together a stretching routine:
The best time to stretch is when your muscles are warmed up. If they are not already warm before you wish to stretch, then you need to warm them up yourself, usually by performing some type of brief aerobic activity (see section General Warm-Up). Obviously, stretching is an important part of warming-up before (see section Warming Up), and cooling-down after a workout (see section Cooling Down). If the weather is very cold, or if you are feeling very stiff, then you need to take extra care to warm-up before you stretch in order to reduce the risk of injuring yourself.
Many of us have our own internal body-clock, or circadian rhythm as, it is more formally called: Some of us are "early morning people" while others consider themselves to be "late-nighters". Being aware of your circadian rhythm should help you decide when it is best for you to stretch (or perform any other type of activity). Gummerson says that most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning, peaking from about 2:30pm-4pm. Also, according to HFLTA, evidence seems to suggest that, during any given day, strength and flexibility are at their peak in the late afternoon or early evening. If this is correct then it would seem to indicate that, all else being equal, you may be better off performing your workout right after work rather than before work.
On the other hand, according to Kurz, "if you need [or want] to perform movements requiring considerable flexibility with [little or] no warm-up, you ought to make early morning stretching a part of your routine." In order to do this properly, you need to first perform a general warm-up (see section General Warm-Up). You should then begin your early morning stretching by first performing some static stretches, followed by some light dynamic stretches. Basically, your early morning stretching regimen should be almost identical to a complete warm-up (see section Warming Up). The only difference is that you may wish to omit any sport-specific activity (see section Sport-Specific Activity), although it may be beneficial to perform it if you have time.
When done properly, stretches performed with the assistance of a partner can be more effective than stretches performed without a partner. This is especially true of isometric stretches (see section Isometric Stretching) and PNF stretches (see section PNF Stretching). The problem with using a partner, however, is that the partner does not feel what you feel, and thus cannot respond as quickly to any discomfort that might prompt you to immediately reduce the intensity (or some other aspect) of the stretch. This can greatly increase your risk of injury while performing a particular exercise.
If you do choose to stretch with a partner, make sure that it is someone you trust to pay close attention to you while you stretch, and to act appropriately when you signal that you are feeling pain or discomfort.
If you are attempting to increase active flexibility (see section Types of Flexibility), you will also want to strengthen the muscles responsible for holding the stretched limbs in their extended positions.
Before composing a particular stretching routine, you must first decide which types of flexibility you wish to increase (see section Types of Flexibility), and which stretching methods are best for achieving them (see section Types of Stretching). The best way to increase dynamic flexibility is by performing dynamic stretches, supplemented with static stretches. The best way to increase active flexibility is by performing active stretches, supplemented with static stretches. The fastest and most effective way currently known to increase passive flexibility is by performing PNF stretches (see section PNF Stretching).
If you are very serious about increasing overall flexibility, then I recommend religiously adhering to the following guidelines:
Overall, you should expect to increase flexibility gradually. However, If you really commit to doing the above, you should (according to SynerStretch) achieve maximal upper-body flexibility within one month and maximal lower-body flexibility within two months. If you are older or more inflexible than most people, it will take longer than this.
Don't try to increase flexibility too quickly by forcing yourself. Stretch no further than the muscles will go without pain. See section Overstretching.
If you are experiencing soreness, stiffness, or some other form of muscular pain, then it may be due to one or more of the following:
Also, according to M. Alter, it is important to remember that some amount of soreness will almost always be experienced by individuals that have not stretched or exercised much in the last few months (this is the price you pay for being inactive). However, well-trained and conditioned athletes who work-out at elevated levels of intensity or difficulty can also become sore. You should cease exercising immediately if you feel or hear anything tearing or popping. Remember the acronym RICE when caring for an injured body part. RICE stands for: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. This will help to minimize the pain and swelling. You should then seek appropriate professional medical advice.
One of the easiest ways to "overstretch" is to stretch "cold" (without any warm-up). A "maximal cold stretch" is not necessarily a desirable thing. Just because a muscle can be moved to its limit without warming up doesn't mean it is ready for the strain that a workout will place on it.
Obviously, during a stretch (even when you stretch properly) you are going to feel some amount of discomfort. The difficulty is being able to discern when it is too much. In her book, Stretch and Strengthen, Judy Alter describes what she calls ouch! pain: If you feel like saying "ouch!" (or perhaps something even more explicit) then you should ease up immediately and discontinue the stretch. You should definitely feel the tension in your muscle, and perhaps even light, gradual "pins and needles", but if it becomes sudden, sharp, or uncomfortable, then you are overdoing it and are probably tearing some muscle tissue (or worse). In some cases, you may follow all of these guidelines when you stretch, feeling that you are not in any "real" pain, but still be sore the next day. If this is the case, then you will need to become accustomed to stretching with less discomfort (you might be one of those "stretching masochists" that take great pleasure in the pain that comes from stretching).
Quite frequently, the progression of sensations you feel as you reach the extreme ranges of a stretch are: localized warmth of the stretched muscles, followed by a burning (or spasm-like) sensation, followed by sharp pain (or "ouch!" pain). The localized warming will usually occur at the origin, or point of insertion, of the stretched muscles. When you begin to feel this, it is your first clue that you may need to "back off" and reduce the intensity of the stretch. If you ignore (or do not feel) the warming sensation, and you proceed to the point where you feel a definite burning sensation in the stretched muscles, then you should ease up immediately and discontinue the stretch! You may not be sore yet, but you probably will be the following day. If your stretch gets to the point where you feel sharp pain, it is quite likely that the stretch has already resulted in tissue damage which may cause immediate pain and soreness that persists for several days.
If your goal really is "to be able to perform splits" (or to achieve maximal lower-body static-passive flexibility), and assuming that you already have the required range of motion in the hip joints to even do the splits (most people in reasonably good health without any hip problems do), you will need to be patient. Everyone is built differently and so the amount of time it will take to achieve splits will be different for different people (although SynerStretch suggests that it should take about two months of regular PNF stretching for most people to achieve their maximum split potential). The amount of time it takes will depend on your previous flexibility and body makeup. Anyone will see improvements in flexibility within weeks with consistent, frequent, and proper stretching. Trust your own body, take it gently, and stretch often. Try not to dwell on the splits, concentrate more on the stretch. Also, physiological differences in body mechanics may not allow you to be very flexible. If so, take that into consideration when working out.
A stretching routine tailored to the purpose of achieving the ability to perform splits may be found at the end of this document. See section Working Toward the Splits.
First of all, there are two kinds of splits: front and side (the side split is often called a chinese split). In a Front split, you have one leg stretched out to the front and the other leg stretched out to the back. In a side split, both legs are stretched out to your side.
A common problem encountered during a side split is pain in the hip joints. Usually, the reason for this is that the split is being performed improperly (you may need to tilt your pelvis forward).
Another common problem encountered during splits (both front and side) is pain in the knees. This pain can often (but not always) be alleviated by performing a slightly different variation of the split. See section The Front Split. See section The Side Split.
Many of you may have seen an advertisement for a split-stretching machine in your favorite exercise/athletic magazine. These machines look like "benches with wings". They have a padded section upon which to sit, and two padded sections in which to place your legs (the machine should ensure that no pressure is applied upon the knees). The machine functions by allowing you to gradually increase the "stretch" in your adductors (inner-thigh muscles) through manual adjustments which increase the degree of the angle between the legs. Such machines usually carry a hefty price tag, often in excess of $100 (American currency).
A common question people ask about these machines is "are they worth the price?". The answer to that question is entirely subjective. Although the machine can certainly be of valuable assistance in helping you achieve the goal of performing a side-split, it is not necessarily any better (or safer) than using a partner while you stretch. The main advantage that these machines have over using a partner is that they give you (not your partner) control of the intensity of the stretch. The amount of control provided depends on the individual machine.
One problem with these "split-stretchers" is that there is a common tendency to use them to "force" a split (which can often result in injury) and/or to hold the "split" position for far longer periods of time than is advisable.
The most effective use of a split-stretching machine is to use it as your "partner" to provide resistance for PNF stretches for the groin and inner thigh areas (see section PNF Stretching). When used properly, "split-stretchers" can provide one of the best ways to stretch your groin and inner-thighs without the use of a partner.
However, they do cost quite a bit of money and they don't necessarily give you a better stretch than a partner could. If you don't want to "cough-up" the money for one of these machines, I recommend that you either use a partner and/or perform the lying `V' stretch described later on in this document (see section Working Toward the Splits).
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