Over the past decade, stretching has been one of the most confusing and controversial topics in the fitness. One way to help clear up some of the questions is to take a closer look at definitions of stretching and flexibility, which have often been thought to be interchangeable terms. Unfortunately, it's not so easily explained.
Flexibility traditionally refers to the range of motion available around a joint. This means that flexibility impacts our ability to recover when we slip, maintain our stability while reaching to a shelf, or our ability to carry countless bags in from our car at one time. It also directly impacts our ability to perform any exercise safely and efficiently - whether it's a bench press, a kickboxing move or our favorite sport.
There are two basic types of flexibility - static and dynamic. Static flexibility is the range of motion around a joint without consideration for speed, as when someone does the splits. Dynamic stretches take the joint and muscles through the full range of motion, often repeatedly, like when someone does a split leap in a dance. Dynamic flexibility involves the coordination of other muscle groups, so becomes a more complex concept.
So if flexibility is so important for safe and effective with movement in sport and life, shouldn't we obviously stretch to improve our flexibility?
Stretching does not necessarily lead to improved flexibility or reduced risk of injury. To be effective, stretching must be used at the right time and in the right way and is only part of the overall picture. Here are some guidelines to keep your stretching safe and effective:
- Warm up before stretching to increase the body temperature and range of motion - perform some type of cardiovascular activity for at least 5-10 minutes
- Relax the muscle before you stretch and focus on all the muscles involved
- Use slow and rhythmic breathing
- Hold stretches between 15-30 seconds or more
- Stretch to the limit of movement versus the point of pain - this is referred to as the "endpoint" of the stretch
- Stretch the muscle in various positions to enhance muscle relaxation and improve overall range of motion at the joint
- If a stretch starts to hurt - back off the movement; try a different position or a different stretch for the same muscle group
- Do stretching exercises daily for all major muscle groups
Remember that your objective is to relax and lengthen muscles. Stretching cold muscles or stretching too far can result in a stretch-reflex reaction where the muscle actually shortens - certainly the opposite of your intent! Adding a stretching program to your regular fitness routine will help to improve your flexibility, to ease tired muscles and to enjoy your activity and your life!
Always consult your health care professional before making any significant changes in your dietary habits or your physical activity routines.