Stretching our bodies is not something new, and while there are many different types of stretching the idea is the same. Our muscles tend to shorten over time and with constant use. Stretching is important to help elongate our muscles and decrease any movement restrictions these tight muscles may have on our bodies.
While we may not be stretching as often as we would like, we have all experienced that gentle pulling sensation and that feeling of sinking into a new range we previously couldn’t get into. But even though people have been stretching for ages, we have continued to question and debate the best ways to improve our flexibility. Is it better to stretch before physical activity or after? How long should I stretch for? Is one stretch better than another?
Like many things in life, the answer is not as clear-cut as we would like. While researchers don’t always agree on the exact details of stretching there are a few principles worth mentioning to help you get the most out of your stretching routine.
Dynamic stretching is an active stretching technique that involves performing movements that are specific to the activity you are interested in. For example, a runner can perform walking knee lifts, which involve flexing the hips and bringing the knee to the chest while walking, before beginning a run. This motion is similar to the movements associated with running and help to stretch the hamstrings and gluteus maximus. Dynamic stretching has the added benefit of increasing the temperature of the muscles and allows you to practice movement patterns in a controlled range of motion that can have a carry over effect into the activity.
Tips for Dynamic Stretching
- Perform 5 – 10 minutes before activity or sport. Add dynamic stretching to your warm up routine.
- Progressively increase range of motion (and speed as appropriate) with repetitions.
- Control movement throughout range and avoid bouncing. Do not sacrifice proper technique for additional range of motion.
A static stretch is a prolonged stretch typically held for 30 seconds. The idea is to elongate a muscle to allow for better mobility around a joint. Tight hamstrings for example can restrict you from touching your toes when your knees are straight. But it is important to remember that stretching occasionally isn’t going to help you get your palms to the floor; research shows that consistency is key. A stretching program consisting of stretching twice a week for five weeks has been shown to produce significant improvements in flexibility.
Tips for Static Stretching
- Ease into the stretch of the muscle until you feel a slight pulling sensation. Stretching should never be painful and you should not feel any numbness or tingling.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Holding for less may not be enough to promote lasting changes and holding for too long may not provide any additional benefit.
- Perform static stretches after activity while muscles are warmed up for a more effective stretch. The elastic properties of collagen in the muscle and tendons increase with an increase in body temperature allowing for a greater stretch.
Therapists at North Island Physical Therapy can teach you specific stretches to improve your flexibility, as well as provide more advanced stretching techniques called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) that use your body’s own muscle receptors and inhibition systems to help improve your range of motion.
- Walking Knee Lift is a great way to actively stretch the glutes and hamstrings before going for a run. Use your hands to assist your knee up as you walk forward.
- Heel-to-Toe Walk involves bending the ankle all the way up when stepping forward and then pressing down so your heel lifts off the surface as you step with your other leg. This helps to stretch out your calves and also helps warm them up for activity.
- Arm Swings is a nice way to warm up and stretch some of your back and shoulder muscles before activities that involve movement in your arms like tennis. Bring your arms across your body from side to side in a controlled manner. Arm Swings can also be done while walking to further help your entire body to warm up.