Why should we stretch?
Stretching exercises encourage lengthening of your muscles and their associated tendons, and oppose the shortening and tightening of muscles that can occur immediately after vigorous exercise, and as a product of ageing and inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle that involves long periods of sitting or driving can cause muscles to shorten and tighten which can lead to pressure on nerves and pain.
By its effect of lengthening muscles, stretching promotes flexibility, that is, the ability to have a full range of motion about your joints.
Exercises for flexibility are an integral part of a balanced exercise programme that also includes:
exercise to increase or maintain muscular strength (e.g. a strength training routine using hand-weights);
exercise to increase or maintain aerobic capacity (e.g. brisk walking, running, swimming);
a healthy diet; and
plenty of rest.
Not taking time to stretch can mean losing the ability to move freely and fully to compete in your chosen sport or to perform the activities that are basic to your daily needs.
When to stretch
Important: stretch only when your muscles are warm, as cold muscles are more likely to tear.
Stretching before and after exercise
A light static stretching routine (stretching a muscle and holding it in this position without discomfort for 10-20 seconds) can be performed at the end of a warm-up, before undertaking more vigorous activity. Be sure to stretch each of the muscle groups you will be using in your chosen activity 2 to 3 times.
An ideal time to do most of your static stretching is after exercise, that is, immediately after your post-exercise cool-down. Allow around 10 to 15 minutes to stretch after exercise, and concentrate on the muscles that you have just exercised. Stretching at this time helps restore your muscles to their resting length and prepare them for your next exercise session.
Including a dedicated stretching routine (for 15 to 20 minutes and unrelated to an exercise session) in your exercise programme 2 or 3 times a week will be an additional help to maintaining your flexibility.
Warming up for a dedicated stretching session might involve 2 to 3 minutes of jogging or doing your favourite exercise at low intensity for 5 minutes. Raising a light sweat will indicate warming of your muscle tissue.
How to stretch
Static stretching is considered the safest method of stretching. A static stretch should be held for 10 to 30 seconds at a point where you can feel the stretch but do not experience any discomfort. If you feel discomfort, ease back on the stretch. Remember not to bounce when holding the stretch.
Dynamic or ballistic stretching
These types of stretching require instruction from a qualified fitness instructor or sports coach, and may sometimes replace static stretches as part of a warm-up for strong activity.
For example, if your chosen activity requires sudden bursts of power, such as jumping or sudden acceleration, then specific ballistic stretches under the guidance of a qualified sports coach may be needed following your warm-up and before the activity.
Dynamic stretches involve muscle movements that move a joint through the full range of movement that will be required in your chosen sport or activity. Dynamic stretches may be used in preparation for high-level exercise, such as competitive tennis or swimming.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching
PNF stretching involves a stretch-contract-relax-stretch cycle whereby the passive stretching of a muscle is enhanced by an intervening isometric contraction of that muscle followed by brief relaxation and a further passive stretch. First the muscle group is passively stretched - this is stretching where you hold your body in the stretch position with the help of a partner or another part of your body or some equipment, e.g. a towel. The muscle is then contracted isometrically - that is, against resistance for about 10 to 15 seconds - then relaxed for 2 to 3 seconds and then passively stretched a bit further than the original passive stretch. This process is usually repeated several times.
The technique of PNF stretching was first developed as a muscle therapy but is now used by athletes as a means of enhancing flexibility. PNF stretching is often used by osteopaths and physiotherapists.
Stretching as therapy
Various stretches may be prescribed or performed by a physiotherapist or other qualified health professional as part of treatment for muscle or joint injuries. The exercises illustrated here are not designed for therapeutic purposes and should not be used in place of prescribed therapeutic stretches.
A simple static stretching routine
Stretch only after warming up, or after exercise, when muscles are warm.
Repeat each stretch 2 to 3 times, working both sides of the body equally.
Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds.
Do not stretch to the point of pain.
Breathe freely while stretching.
Do not bounce.
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