Or do you waste time and energy?
By Gwenn Jones
Most of us think we know how to stretch. Stretching is something we workout buffs say we do, or wigwenll do, if we have time and, really swear swear swear we’re doing it correctly. Let’s find out if we stretch correctly.
Below, is an explanation and guidance for correct stretching. Remember, the purpose is to: 1) increase joint range of motion, 2) reduce post-workout soreness, 3) increase or sustain muscle/tendon flexibility and 4) relieve stress. You might benefit from the following popular explanations I gathered from self-proclaimed, experienced buff-a-holics and see if you fall into one of these categories.
Person 1) The hot manly man: Recently, post-workout, I was stretching next to an acquaintance who asked for some hamstring and calf stretches. We went over a couple of stretches he liked. As his face scrunched up I said, “Does that hurt?” Him: “Oh yeh, but you know, it’s good hurt.” He was performing a calf stretch, toes dorsi-flexed with a towel, and pulling harder, and harder, pain increasing with each passing second. This is called ballistic stretching. I informed him this was abusive to his connective tissues and to beat, there is no true stretch here at all – what actually occurs is a stretch reflex*. Me: “You stretch like that all the time?” Him: “Yes!” Starting this day, he learned a new and correct way of stretching muscle groups. Will he continue?
*Stretch Reflex–When a muscle is stretched ballistically, or too far, causing the muscle to contract in order to avoid injury to itself.
Person 2) The gal who’s always right: A long-time student (another venue) who recently discovered her club’s dance/aerobics classes described what fun she was having and added she does it almost every day. I advised her that although this is a terrific toner and cardiovascular workout, if done consistently you’d better stretch the hip flexors because they become very tight from the constant hip flexion. She assured me she does ‘very efficient’ stretches after her sessions because she is an ex-dancer and is multi-experienced. She shows me. Watching her patiently — mouth bleeding; biting tongue — her stretches turned out to be a bunch of lunges. Me: “Actually, that is not a stretch, rather that’s an exercise move. A stretch is a constant, smooth elongation of a your target area.” I’m such a killjoy! So she walks away, and says, “I do just fine with my lunges.” My cue there to shut up. (P.S. There is a great hip flexor stretch one can hold in the low-lunge position, but it’s not this one!)
Why the Hip Flexors?
To explain, Hip Flexors (particularly the illiopsoas* region – upper hip flexors) tighten fiercely with constant hip flexion movements such as: situps/crunches, running, movements with knees lifting, driving and sitting, leg raises, etc., In turn tight upper flexors can cause low-back pain if those flexors are not stretched out. The below should help the vision.
*FYI, the illiopsoas group lay across the anterior of the hip, crossing the pelvis. It connects from the lumbar vertebrae to the femur (thigh bone). When too tight, low-pain pain may ensue with this tight pull across the pelvis. [The Illiacus group bring the upper front body toward the lower body (legs) or bring lower body (legs/levers) toward the upper body (chest etc.). [Psoas pronounced “so – az”].
[photo courtesy of http://www.setptusa.com]
So, there are two common examples of so-called experienced folks’ comprehension of a proper stretch. Both unsafe, both incorrect, and potentially harmful.
Friend #1: receptive to correct way (requires patience).
Friend #2: uninterested, preferring her old habits, leading with ego (and will call on my services likely because she has pain, hmmmmm).
Back to the main point: Below, for your assistance, is an easy explanation of proper stretch practice technically called: Static Stretch*.
*A (static) stretch: Holding the body part in a safe, stationary position in order to stabilize the muscle and its connective tissues safely at their greatest length (with slight tension, not pain) to achieve greater range of motion.
Instruction: Standard stretch duration is 30 seconds minimum, best results achieved with duration of 30-90 seconds.
Notice the explanation states ‘holding the body part,’ not pulling tighter and tighter with greater force until face turns purple.
How to Stretch Muscles & Tendons Effectively
Get in position for your stretch, spine in alignment and long. Begin your stretch movement, usually during exhalation. Close your eyes if possible. As you stay in position, you will feel a genuine stretch display itself in this order:
1) First 0-5 seconds: A beginning feeling of slight tension, no pain, no hurt, no tweaking, no torquing.
2) After 6-10 seconds, a ‘softening’ of that tissue is physically felt (easier to decipher with closed eyes) and remains for the duration. Breathe normally.
3) Ensure no pulling. The softening state is the muscle/tendon elongating safely. Stay in the softened state for as long as described above. When time permits, I repeat a target stretch several times after a yoga or fitness class stretching a group for as long as 12-15 minutes — love this!
NOTE 1): From beginning to end with all stretches, keep your spine in alignment with good posture (shoulders drawn softly away from the ears, chest open, rear deltoids head down and center toward tailbone). The spine is a key element in a successful stretch. Many hunch forward, i.e., rounding the upper back, when performing stretches. Though you might feel something stretching, ’rounding’ the spine counters elongation. Helpful TIP: always think “make yourself taller.”
NOTE 2): Always stretch warm muscles, never cold. Stretching cold muscles can lead to strain or injury and is not advantageous. If you insist on stretching prior to your workout, then the proper order is this:
a) warm-up the areas to be worked (minimum 5 min.)
b) now stretch those warmed muscle groups
c) enjoy your workout
d) cool-down and stretch
There are positive reasons for the use of proper, ballistic stretching (i.e., bouncing, jerking, pushing, pulsing moves.) Normally this method is used for sports specific purposes for professional athletes or those in competition.
So relax, listen to your tunes, breathe fully, stretch your hard-working bod, and call me in the morning! You deserve it!
— Gwenn Jones is a certified YogaFit instructor; ACE-certified personal fitness trainer, ACE-mind-body specialist, and ACE-group fitness trainer. Professionally training clients since 1994; located in northern California.