Whether you are a gym-goer, aspiring sportsman or relatively inactive, there is a good chance that you should stretch more. There are numerous benefits to stretching for athlete and non-athlete alike, but in these busy times, stretching is often sacrificed. Chartered Physiotherapist John Jordan discusses the do’s and dont’s of stretching and the some of the benefits associated.
Stretching is recommended by the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) in their international guidelines which is the gold standard of exercise recommendations. It is recommended that the general population does flexibility work 2-3 times a week, minimum. There are three main types of stretching, static, dynamic and ballistic. In a previous blog it was detailed how dynamic stretching (stretching the muscle during an active, functional movement – such as high knees) during a warm up can improve performance.
Static stretching passively placing a stretch on the muscle and holding that position. This is generally recommended for long term muscle length changes and in the cool down after exercise. Fatigue after exercise will often expedite someone’s journey home, often at the expense of a post exercise cool down. After exercise your muscles tend to be in a slightly contracted state, i.e slightly shorter. If this builds up over time, posture can change and long term problems can arise. Without a cool down you are more likely to notice an increase in cramping and stiffness in your joints and an increase in post exercise muscular aches. The clinical term for the latter is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and can feel as bad as a muscle pull. Stretching has been shown to reduce these pains.
Ballistic stretching uses momentum and velocity to force the muscle beyond its normal length (such as swinging a leg to a high kicking action). It is associated with a higher incidence of injury and as such is not generally recommended.
Stretching can help both aid the healing of and prevent and of injury. Here are some examples of common stretches recommended by chartered Physiotherapists:
- Stretching your calf (particularly ladies that are fond of high heels) can help ease some causes of foot and ankle pain.
- Stretching your hips can often aid in the rehabilitation of some causes of knee pain.
- While it is difficult to stretch the muscles in your lower back, many people with back pain benefit from stretching their glutes.
- Stretching the chest muscles can help the shoulder and shoulder blade area, reducing any complaints of clicking or pain in the shoulder.
- Postural pain (commonly suffered by people stuck at a desk all day) is often relieved by stretching your upper traps (where most people feel stress accumulates)
To achieve long term changes in muscle length, and for the stretch to be effective for more than just a few hours, you need to maintain a stretch for 20-30s, This needs to be done a number of times (2-4) in a row and ideally more than once a day. You are not going to gain a significant change in muscle length by stretching just 20 seconds a day. If a physiotherapist or any healthcare professional is advising you stretch, not doing so may drastically reduce the benefit you receive from the treatment.
It is important to stretch right. A great example would be a hamstring stretch. Most people will try and touch their toes, keeping their knees straight. This does put the hamstrings into a stretch but it also bends the lower back. You can fool yourself thinking you do not have tight hamstrings by having a mobile lower back. If you adapt this stretch by trying to reach 6-12 inches above your foot, you keep the back straight and just stretch the hamstrings.
This advice should not be taken in lieu of treatment or advice from a healthcare professional, but prevention is better than the cure.