A consistent stretching program should be part of most our lives. Let’s take a look at some of the important benefits of stretching.
The most prevalent and obvious result of stretching is increased muscle length. As you stretch yourself, you increase flexibility of your muscles. However, for this to happen you must do it right and follow some basic principles.
To increase the length of your hamstring muscle you cannot stretch your bicep. The resulting benefit from a stretch is specific to where you are stretching and how you do it.
Stretching must be done frequently enough to elicit a permanent lengthening of the muscle. Stretching once per week is not enough.
You must hold your stretch long enough for the type of stretch you are doing. For example, if you hold a static stretch for 2 seconds you may not get the benefit you need. So keep in mind that the amount of time you hold or don’t hold a stretch depends on the type.
You absolutely must not push a stretch beyond the injury limit. Stretch too far and BAM you are injured. Find the right resistance points in your muscles to hold a stretch. On the other hand, stretching to a point where you feel no resistance in the muscle will lead to no muscle length increases.
Stretching requires the right type at the right time. I do not recommend solely static stretching before you train or exercise. Read more about different types of stretching and flexibility exercises below.
Types of Stretching and flexibility
A well-designed stretching program relies on various types of stretching. The various stretches work to create extensibility, warm up and activate the muscles. The reason a well-balanced stretching program is important is based on how the different types of stretches work. Let me be clear, you don’t have to use every type of stretch available. Nevertheless, it is advisable to balance your program so you can accomplish the goals mentioned above like extensibility, warming up the muscles etc.
Let me illustrate this with a couple different types of stretches. First, what does static stretching do? It does create greater length in the muscles but is it appropriate to “Only” do static stretching before? No. You need to warm up. To warm up you need dynamic stretching.
To improve your flexibility requires a fully faceted, multi dimensional approach. Here is a list of the primary categories of stretches.
- Ballistic stretching
- Dynamic stretching
- Active stretching
- Passive (or relaxed) stretching
- Static stretching
- Isometric stretching
- PNF stretching (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
- Active Isolated stretching (AIS)
- Self-myofascial release (foam rolling)
The above types of stretches can all be incorporated into a routine fit for almost anyone. Does this mean that all the types mentioned above should be included in every workout? No. Does it mean that it must be included at some point? Still no. For example, Static Stretching, Dynamic Stretching and foam rolling can get you along way. In fact, these may be enough for a lot of people to get the results you need.
Typically, I see neuromuscular stretching as an advanced form of stretching that most people don’t know how to perform. Neuromuscular stretching has been shown to be effective so it should not be disregarded altogether. If you have the experience and know how, by all means, use neuromuscular stretching.
Active Isolated stretching uses the functional antagonist to contract, thereby relaxing the muscle that needs to be stretched. This unique type of stretching requires a bit of knowledge to perform but not to the level of an expert.
Decrease injury and muscle imbalances
This is a big one. Have you ever experienced small nagging pains associated with overuse or muscle imbalances? Stretching can help reduce the number of injuries you experience. If your muscles are held in a shorten position, day after day without sufficient lengthening, your muscles will be out of balance. Out of balance muscles then lead to injury. I think office workers and others that sit all day are prime candidates for muscle imbalances. This does not mean if you work in the office you are guaranteed to have imbalances. It means that since you sit all day the possibility exists, unless you exercise and stretch regularly.
This has particular importance for athletes. They want every competitive edge they can get to beat their opponent. The big question is does stretching improve performance? Yes, it does improve performance.
First, as will be mentioned later, stretching allows the muscles to do what they are supposed to do when asked to do it, through a full range of motion. In other words, when you sprint you want your glutes to fire. Lack of glute firing could be an indication of a tight psoas (hip flexor). I would presume that performance would be better if the body functions how it is supposed to. Does it mean the difference between running a 4.3 forty-yard dash and a 4.8-second dash? No! How much will it improve performance? I don’t know. Even if it does not increase speed, vertical jump and agility, the body will be working better. From that standpoint, the body performs better.
Second, there is some evidence to suggest a boost in performance with dynamic stretching.
I would say this is the most important benefit of stretching. Many probably take this for granted, especially the youth. Stretching creates freedom. It helps create the freedom to move without those nagging injuries mentioned earlier.
Many of these points tie together. I believe lack of injury in one’s life correlates to a better quality of life. Stretching puts the body in balance, thus allowing all parts to function how they were designed. Stretching increases the likelihood that when a muscle is called on to do something it does the work, not its helper muscles.
Some resources claim stretching also promotes relaxation and well-being. One study compared stretching (SR) to a group using the Bernstein and Borkovec tense relationship techniques (TR). Each group performed their respective techniques on the same muscles. Afterwards they assessed physiological (EMG) and subjective (Emotions etc) responses to the techniques. The SR group displayed less sadness, less EMG activity at the muscles stretched, and less self-reported muscle tension than the TR group.
Stretching has many benefits from improving quality of life to increasing performance for athletes. A regular flexibility program should be part of your life to achieve the benefits listed above.