Stretching 101

By Erin Higgins, DPT
Jumpstart Physical Therapy

We've covered stretching in the past but questions continue to arise regarding when to stretch, and what are the most effective methods. So here's a little review.

Stretching is vital to all workout routines to decrease the risk for injury, improve flexibility, and decrease post muscle soreness. Incorporating them into your workouts will help deliver better results. But what kind of stretching should you incorporate? Here's a primer.

Static stretching: Static stretching involves holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more. The purpose of static stretching is to lengthen the muscle in order to decrease tightness and thus risk for injury. This is typically best done after a workout in order to cool your muscles down and limits tightness post-workout. Literature shows that you should hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds, and generally repeat the stretch 3 times (longer holds or more reps are even better) in order to promote long term change in tissue length. Static stretching should be just that - static! Do not bounce when performing static stretches as this can potentially cause injury to the muscle itself. Also, stretches should never be painful. Be sure to stretch only until you start to feel a light pull and discomfort; stretching too far (into or past the point of pain) can damage the muscle tissue.

Active stretching: Simply just bouncing during a normally static stretch is not an active stretching technique; neither is simply just jogging or skipping and calling that your dynamic warm up. This idea of a dynamic warm is to take your body through a series of controlled movements in order to actively elongate each muscle while at the same time increasing your heart rate and blood flow in order to prepare yourself for an athletic endeavor. Proper use of both an active/dynamic stretching program and a static stretching routine is vital for any active person. Examples of dynamic stretches include leg swings, inchworms, knee hug heel-raises, twisting lunges, and arm circles. They involve multiple muscle groups at once and help to warm the muscles up prior to exercising.

Specifically, dynamic stretching helps to improve blood flow and muscle length at the same time as it awakens your neuromuscular system in order to prepare for the more stressful and dynamic activities or exercises you are going to perform. Done properly, you should feel a gentle pain-free stretch in your muscles and joints along with a slight elevation in your heart rate as the blood begins to flow through your body and prepare you for an athletic event. By controlling your muscles through their full range of motion prior to exercising, you can decrease your risk for a muscle pull upon starting your actual workout.

When NOT to stretch: A common practice that has been disproven by research within the past years is static stretching after straining or pulling a muscle. This should be avoided in the immediate days following a muscle strain. A strain is a small tear and pull within the fibers of that muscle. By stretching the already over-stretched muscle and torn muscle tissue, you can cause more damage to that muscle. Additionally, static stretching is typically not recommended prior to working out, when still cold. The purpose of a good warm up is to increase the blood flow, wake up the muscles and get the nerves ready to fire and respond. The cooling effect of static stretching is contradictory for a pre-workout routine.