What is Stretching?
Stretching is incorporated in many different forms of physical exercise, including sports, Tai Chi, yoga, and dance. When you “stretch” a muscle, you are putting it at its end range of length. You know you are at this point when you feel a “sensation of stretch” or you feel slightly uncomfortable. Stretching should never cause you pain.
Now for an analogy. Imagine a muscle is like an elastic tube. When you pull the two ends away from each other, the elastic stretches and creates tension. If you hold it in a stretched position, or if you repeatedly stretch it and relax it back and forth, eventually, it will lose some of the elasticity and get a little longer. Stretching it too fast or too much can potentially snap the elastic.
Muscles work in a similar way. Stretching a muscle is the same as pulling the two ends of the muscle away from each other. There are two major ways of stretching muscles: static and dynamic. Static stretching is holding a muscle in its lengthened position for a certain period of time. An example of this is reaching for your toes while sitting on the ground, spine erect and knees straight. This is a classic hamstring stretch. Dynamic stretching is moving a muscle in and out of its lengthened position repeatedly in a controlled manner. An example of this is an inchworm stretch (see below) where you move in and out of stretching your hamstrings.
Let’s take a look at the calves (gastrocnemius muscle). They cross the back of the knee joint and the back of the ankle joint. They contract, or shorten in length, to perform two major actions in the lower body: bend the knee and point the foot. On the contrary, they increase in length (AKA stretch!) when you straighten the knee and flex the foot. Try it with me. Come up and down on your toes. This contracts the calf muscle. Now keep your knee straight and your heel on the ground, but lift the rest of your foot and toes up to rest on a wall or step. This stretches the calf muscle. You’ll see some basketball players tearing a calf muscle because they forcefully contracted the muscle in an already lengthened state (landing from a jump).
When you stretch muscles that cross joints, you can increase the range of motion of these joints. Let’s go back to our calf muscle example. Since the calves cross the back of the knee and the back of the ankle, getting more flexibility in that muscle can help you straighten your knee and flex your ankle further. Better knee and ankle mobility helps with running, walking, stairs, lunging, squatting, and more! Also, stretching builds your tolerance to increased range of motion of your joints. This decreased sensitivity can help you move more freely and with less pain. Unfortunately, there is little evidence on whether stretching can reduce soreness after a workout.
Studies also show that stretching can decrease work-related chronic neck/shoulder pain, decrease menopausal and depressive symptoms in middle-aged women, and improve sleep quality in people with chronic insomnia.
How to Stretch?
When to stretch: It’s best to do dynamic stretches before a workout or sports event. This helps warm up your body while lengthening muscles at the same time. Static stretching can be done after exercise as a great cool down. I don’t advise people to do intense static stretching when their body is cold.
How long to stretch: If you are doing a static stretch, hold it for about 30 seconds and repeat 2-3 times with 15 second breaks in between. Static stretching greater than 60 seconds may lead to performance impairments. If you are doing a dynamic stretch, continue for 2 minutes or more, as this leads to performance enhancements.
My personal recommendation is to breathe deeply and slowly while stretching. Sometimes I tell my patients to count with breaths instead of seconds when holding a static stretch. This helps relax your body and lengthen the muscle gradually instead of tensing.
Time is money. So why not stretch more than one muscle group at the same time? If you do not feel the stretch in the areas I have noted, then discontinue the stretch. I’d rather you stretch each muscle group effectively one at a time than combine stretches ineffectively. Great to give it a try though!
*See IGTV post “Stretching” on Sneha Physical Therapy’s Instagram page for visual demos.
Stretching should always be done in a pain-free range of motion. You should never push through pain to gain more length. Keep in mind, there are problems when you “over-stretch.” Everything should be done in moderation. People who are extremely flexible can sometimes have issues with stabilizing their joints since they move too freely. This can lead to injuries like dislocations, tears, and fractures. The important thing is that you need a healthy balance of stretching and strengthening for healthy muscles and a healthy body.
So you guessed it... Up next: "Strengthening."