Stretching

What are the benefits of stretching?

Research shows that stretching increases flexibility, improves range of motion, and improves function of injured or painful muscles. Stretching may also reduce risk of injury, and certain types of stretching may improve muscle performance.


One common belief about stretching is that stretching reduces soreness after physical activity. However, based on current research, this is probably not true. If your main goal when stretching is to reduce muscle soreness post work-out, there are better options to manage this (such as sports massage).


What is actually happening to your muscles as you stretch them?

Stretching affects your muscles down the smallest component part. Muscles are made up of lots of smaller units, with the smallest and most basic being 2 proteins called actin (AKA thin filament) and myosin (AKA thick filament).

Image Source: https://jennirawlingsblog.com/blog/stretching-is-in-your-brain-a-new-paradigm-of-flexibility-yoga-part-1

These proteins overlap each other and interact to provide the contraction force for muscles. However, they are rather particular about exactly how much they want to overlap each other. If there is too much overlap (ie. if a muscle is too tight or shortened), the muscle will not be able to contract at its full strength. This is the core issue that stretching aims to correct.

Image Source: https://sequencewiz.org/2014/10/29/stretching-overrated-muscle-tension-muscle-soreness/

On the other end of the spectrum, if a muscle is too elongated in its resting position, this also reduces the muscle’s ability to contract. Therefore, not every muscle necessarily needs to be stretched and we want to be mindful of how we are stretching, especially immediately before physical activity.


Before performing exercise, you should avoid static stretching as this will reduce the muscle’s ability to produce force. Dynamic stretching, however, allows for the positive benefits of stretching without causing this force reduction and is therefore the preferred option before exercising. The difference between these types of stretching are described in more detail below.


Types of Stretching:

There are different methods of stretching, with the 2 main categories being static and dynamic, as described in more detail below:


Static stretching includes:

  • Passive stretching: muscle held in lengthened position statically by using passive body weight, other body parts, or static structure (ie wall, floor, door frame)

  • Ex: self stretching, manual stretching by physiotherapist

  • The picture below demonstrates a passive hamstring stretch. The stretch is created by using her body weight and the table as counter forces to straighten the leg.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Studios
  • Active stretching: muscle held in lengthened position by using active muscle force

  • Ex: certain yoga positions

  • The picture below demonstrates an active hamstring stretch. The stretch is created by using active muscle force of the quadriceps to straighten the knee.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Studios

The best time to perform a static stretch is immediately (<10 minutes) after exercise. The increased temperature and blood flow in the muscle following exercise allows for increases in muscle elasticity.


Dynamic stretching consists of controlled movement that moves the joint to end range. Examples of dynamic stretches include leg swings, arm swings, bum kicks, and high knees. Dynamic stretching may actually improve performance by increasing force production and increasing motor unit activation.


The picture below demonstrates a dynamic hamstring stretch. The stretch is created by performing a controlled movement of hip flexion and knee extension.

Source: Recsports: University of Florida

Dynamic stretching is sometimes confused with ballistic stretching. While dynamic stretching consists of controlled movements, ballistic stretching consists of rapid, bouncing movement at end range of motion. A common example of this is reaching down to touch your toes, and then bouncing at that end range.


Ballistic stretching is never recommended, as rapid movements actually stimulate a protective mechanism in the muscle that resists stretch. The “golgi tendon organ (GTO)” is a receptor in our muscle tendons that senses change in muscle tension. If this change happens too quickly, the GTO stimulates the muscle to reflexively contract to prevent excessive stretch and potential damage.


How long should you stretch?

The Golgi Tendon Organ reflex explains why static stretches need to be held for longer durations, as the stretch must be held at a low load long enough for the GTO to realize there is no threat to the muscle. Research suggests holding static stretches for 10-30 seconds, 2-4 repetitions, once a day.


A common question is if stretching longer than this is beneficial or will help gains in flexibility to be made more quickly. Research shows that performing a stretch with the above parameters once compared to twice a day produces similar gains in flexibility. 30 second holds and 60 second holds also yield similar results, although research has suggested that those 65 and older benefit from 60 second holds (compared to 30 seconds). This is most likely related to age related changes in muscle elasticity and flexibility. Greater than 60 second holds may cause over-stretching of the muscle and be detrimental.


What type of stretching is best?

Personal preferences, fitness goals, and existing injuries all play a role in determining the best stretching program for you. Here’s a summary of pros & cons of each type of stretching to consider:


Static passive:

  • Pros:

  • Typical type of stretching that most people think of, and is therefore also the best researched. Clear recommended parameters of 10-30 seconds, 2-4 repetitions, 1x/day

  • Little energy expenditure required to perform

  • Cons:

  • Not appropriate for pre-physical activity


Static active

  • Pros:

  • May have additional benefit to stretch from reciprocal inhibition effect

  • Combines stretching with muscle activation

  • Cons:

  • Not appropriate for pre-physical activity

  • Higher energy expenditure required compared to passive stretching


Dynamic:

  • Pros:

  • May improve muscle performance as a pre-physical activity warm up

  • May have additional benefit to stretch from reciprocal inhibition effect

  • Combines stretching with muscle activation

  • Cons:

  • Not as well researched as static stretching, so not clear what the ideal parameters for performing are

  • Need to be cautious to perform movements in a controlled manner so that it does not become ballistic


Ballistic

  • Pros:

  • None

  • Cons:

  • Potential for injury


Which muscles should you stretch?

This depends on the individual. Muscles such as hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, upper traps, and pectorals are commonly tight on many people due to the demands of modern life; however, this is certainly not true for everyone. Job duties, lifestyle, hobbies, age, injury history, etc all factor into which muscles may be tight.


When in doubt, always refer to your physio for guidance on how and what to stretch!


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