If you grew up in the 80’s, then you would remember Gumby and Stretch Armstrong. Although these characters posses inhuman characteristics, such as no bones, that allows their limbs and bodies to rotate, flex, and extend beyond what’s humanly possible, we should not take our flexibility for granted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one million people sustain a back injury every year at work. In the US alone, over six million (that’s 6,000,000!) people require medical attention due to a fracture. Fractures, broken bones, sprains, strains, and even the common back injury are caused by exceeding one’s range of motion (ROM) limits. The previously mentioned characters proved to the world that being flexible could be a great asset.
Every time I speak at a seminar on the topic of stretching I like to first start by asking the audience to throw out some information that they know or heard about stretching. The following are some responses:
- Stretching is for athletes only
- Bouncing gives me a better stretch
- All I need to do is hold a stretch for a few seconds
- The more pain, the better the stretch
My next slide I present after I ask the previous question shows some myths about stretching and I always get a couple of people taking in their breath or being surprised that their answers are on this slide. It happens all the time. That’s because too many sources are giving people contradictory information. Therefore, they’re left confused, which leads to dropping the stretch component of their workout, and ultimately sustaining an injury because their ROM is very limited. That’s why, I want to debunk what people have heard over the years in magazines, on television, and from friends. This way, you can walk away from this article knowing that you’ll move forward towards your goals without any limitations or severe setbacks.
To begin understanding the possibilities of our human bodies, we must first ask why. Why do we stretch? I know this might sound elementary, but do you really know why you’re stretching? The most common and sometimes only response that I get from the audience is: “to prevent injuries.” This is great! We know of only one reason why we stretch. The main reasons we stretch:
- To improve flexibility and ROM
- Increase blood circulation
- Obtain normal muscle length
- And through all of the above, the resulting benefit is injury prevention
Let’s go a little deeper to understand what each of these mean. Flexibility and range of motion (ROM) are the ability to move a body part in one direction through its limit . Flexibility and ROM are used interchangeably. The more flexible you are, the greater the ROM of that body part. As you move your body through its ROM, more blood is supplied to those muscles allowing for contractions, therefore, increasing the blood circulation within your body. We will touch on reason number three later. So when all parts come together, the body will be more limber and thus injuries will be fewer.
Now that you know why you’re stretching, knowing what kinds of stretches to do before and after you exercise is important. That’s right, the stretches that you do before and after are different. Stretches that you do after your warm up and before you exercise should be dynamic stretches. A quick note before describing dynamic stretches. A warm up is needed to increase your body’s core temperature and move more blood to the muscles that will be used in the exercise. Dynamic stretches should be done after a warm up to prevent injury. These stretches are called dynamic because they are done by moving your body through a full range of motion for a number of repetitions. Dynamic stretches include; head circles, arm circles, trunk rotations, high knees, and butt kicks. These stretches are to prepare the muscles and joints for their movements within the exercise routine.
The other type of stretching which should be done at the end of a workout after the cool down is called static stretching and this is the most common type that people know. I have provided a routine of static stretches that you can do at the end of your exercise and even at the end of the day to keep your body flexible. I mention at the end of the day because even though you are not exercising, you are contacting your muscles throughout the day to do your lifestyle activities. It is important to do some static stretches at the end of the day to allow your muscles to return to their normal lengths and not wake up tight or stiff in the morning. Never do static stretches in the morning or before you warm up. Pulling your muscles while they’re “cold” can lead to tears in the muscle or tendon. Also, only stretch to the point where you feel a little pull on your muscles. The name of the game is not to experience excessive amount of pain. Ever stretch a rubber band too far? If you remember what happened to that rubber band, know that your muscles are essentially rubber bands too. Too far too soon can cause that muscle or tendon to pull away from the attachment site. The myth that you should bounce while doing stretches is another fatality waiting to happen. Just like stretching too far, jerking on a muscle can cause as much damage to the muscle. The reason ballistic (bouncing) stretches are done is to allow athletes who’s main purpose is to warm up their legs to jump high. So when you perform these stretches, use slow, controlled movements.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching two to three days a week (however, stretching daily saw greater improvements); holding for a count of 15-60 seconds for each static stretch; and performing two to three sets. Dynamic stretches should be done for 8-10 repetitions. Following this routine will reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life. Who knows, eventually you might be like Gumby and have no problem touching your feet without bending your legs.
Static Stretch Routine
Perform these stretches after you exercise and at the end of the day to keep your body limber and protect yourself from injury. Perform two sets, holding for 30-60 seconds for each stretch.
2. Side Neck Stretch – (Neck)
Sitting up tall, lower your ear to the same side of your shoulder without lifting your shoulder or rotating your head. Place your hand on top of the ear to hold the head in position without pulling more than your neck can tolerate. Switch sides after each set.
3. Arm Across Chest – (Shoulders, Biceps)
Sitting up tall, place one arm across your chest and keep it straight. Place the other hand above the elbow of the crossed arm to keep it in position. Relax the wrist and allow the stretched arm to straighten to stretch the biceps. Do not hyperextend at the elbow. Switch arms after each set.
4. Chest Stretch – (Chest, Shoulders)
Sitting on a mat with your knees bent , place the soles of your feet on the mat. Place your hands on the mat behind your body with your fingers pointing forward and bend your elbows. Slowly move your butt toward your feet to stretch your chest and shoulders.
5. Child’s Pose – (Back, Shoulder)
Kneel on a mat and place your rear on your heels. Slowly lower your upper torso towards the ground and place your arms outstretched by your head. Place your head on a pillow if it cannot relax on the ground.
6. Prone Quadriceps Stretch – (Quadriceps)
Lie on your stomach and extend your legs straight. Have your hands at your side and rest your head downward or turned to the side. Lift one heel up toward your butt and using the same side hand, hold the foot or ankle and slowly pull the heel in closer. If you cannot reach your foot, grab a belt and loop it around your foot and hold the other end of the belt strap.
7. Hamstrings and Calf Stretch – (Hamstrings, Calf, Lower Back)
Sitting with your legs extending on the mat, bring one foot up and place the sole on the inside of your other thigh. Flex the outstretched foot back and slowly reach down towards that foot. If you can’t grab the foot, use a belt and hold the strap while looping the other side around your foot.
8. Glute Stretch – (Glutes, IT Band, Lower Back)
In the same position as the last stretch, cross the bent leg over the straight leg and place your opposite hand on the knee of the bent leg. Rotate your body towards the bent leg and hold.
ACSM ‘S Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 8th ed. (2010), Flexibility Exercise. 172
ACSM’S Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 5th ed. (2006). Principles of Musculoskeletal Exercise Programming: Neuromuscular Consideration. 362
MayoClinic.com (2010), Stretching: Focus on Flexibility. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/HQ01447
National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey & American Academy of Orthopaedic