Let’s begin with a water balloon analogy. Although a balloon is designed to hold a significant amount of air, it is extremely difficult for most people to blow one up straight out of the bag. The most successful way to blow a balloon up is to stretch it out a few times. In fact, if the balloon is blown up long enough, it becomes very easy to blow it up again, once the air is let out. The integrity of the balloon is only compromised if blown up past its designed capacity. This same principle holds true for the muscles of your body. They may be capable of lifting tremendous weight (for some people more weight than others) and perform miraculous feats but they shouldn’t be expected nor forced to do so without stretching their tissue first.
Once we mature into adulthood, muscles, unlike bones are not set to a specific unalterable length. Our habitual movements mostly determine the flexibility of our muscles otherwise known as our range of motion. Unfortunately, most individuals that do stretch do so incorrectly, putting themselves at risk for more injury.
Stretching not only facilitates maximum use of your muscles in speed, power and strength but also minimizes injury and increases recovery from injury. A research study conducted by “Terar et all” at Kyoto University in Japan demonstrated that proper flexibility training allowed for movements to be made with less energy. Greater flexibility also allows for enhanced power through increased range of motion. Take this analogy; the further you stretch a rubber band, the further distance it travels due to greater potential energy being generated.
A few things to understand prior to starting a stretching program: the purpose of stretching is to stretch muscle tissue. Tendons are thick tough bands that connect muscles to bone; if you try and stretch them you can cause tearing which translates to an injury that is nearly impossible to heal because of almost non-existent blood supply. Although ligaments are much more pliable than tendons, they should not be stretched because once stretched, they lose their ability to hold bones together and that is their primary purpose. Ligaments were created to be minimally elastic and taut so they can keep bones together. Muscles are composed of bundles of muscle fibers that are held together by a thin web like material called fascia which are composed of collagen. Collagen is very inelastic like ligaments and is responsible for most of the stiffness that you experience the morning after a workout. Over time, our muscles adjust their natural resting length based upon the repetitive motion that we subject them to. If this happens to be an activity that involves constant contraction, then our natural state of rest will be somewhat contracted.
For purposes of this short article, we will cover the 3 most important considerations for stretching.
Relaxation: A muscle must be relaxed before it can be stretched. A prime example of a widely practiced stretching technique that is counterproductive for most people is a balancing stretch. Have you ever seen someone trying to do a quadriceps stretch (front/top of the leg) while standing? If the purpose of stretching is to increase the range of motion and elongate the muscle fiber, then why would it make sense to try and stretch a muscle group while it is focusing all of it’s attention on trying to stabilized the body and maintain balance? The answer is simple, “it cannot be done (unless highly trained)”. There are a very select pool of individuals that can effectively stretch while standing up and that would be athletes who have had years of sport specific training such as ballet dancers, gymnasts and yoga practitioners. Stretches should be done either on the ground or well supported.
Warm-up: Another principle to understand is that muscles need to be warmed up prior to being stretched and part of that warm up is not just warm tissue but getting the circulation active in the target tissue. Consider the difference of the elasticity of a rubber band sitting in the sun vs. the freezer. Always do a minimum of 5-10 minutes of light cardio to warm up the muscles.
Duration: Contrary to popular practice, stretching a muscle for anything less than 30-35 seconds is a waste of time. It is a popular practice for people to rush through their stretches, and stretch a muscle for 10-20 seconds. Muscles don’t stretch until they are allowed to relax; the first thirty seconds are used for relaxing.