You may have felt difficulty stretching your legs after a long period of air travel or a long day sitting on your work desk. Stretching of the legs is the first thing you do in these scenarios. That’s a simple example you can see how stretching is beneficial for our lives.
For whom stretching exercises are important ?
Most of us think stretching exercises are meant for athletes, gymnastic players, and other sportspeople. The American College of Sports Medicine ( ACSM ) strongly rejects this statement. According to them at least every person should engage in stretching exercises 2 to 3 days a week to maintain the health of our muscles and tendons.
Why stretching exercises are important ?
The range of motion ( ROM ) of our body is determined by two factors; joints and muscles. Muscle tension is the key feature to limit ROM. There are two main components of muscle tension which are active tension and passive tension. Active tension is related to the neurological component of the muscle whereas passive tension is determined by muscle structure. Postural adaptations and muscle scarring after an injury determine the passive tension whereas contractures after neurological problems and spasms cause active tension.
Stretching exercises are focusing on improving the passive tension of the muscle because active tension is hard to control because of its neurological damages. Passive tension is inversely proportionate to muscle length, which means tension increases when muscles became short and vice-versa.
The purpose of stretching exercises is to increase the distance between the origin and insertion of a muscle. The origin and insertion are the two main locations that a muscle is attached to a bone.
Thereby stretching exercises can reduce the passive stiffness of a muscle and increases the ROM. The ROM improves not because of the increased muscle length but increased tolerance of the muscle for the tension.
Rehabilitation centers widely use muscle stretching techniques to improve the ROM of their patients. These patients have damaged muscles and they in a healing process. So stretching helps them to align collagen fibers of the damaged muscle during the healing process. It’s an additional advantage other than reducing tension.
If you are an athlete, you know how a hamstring strain can slow down your training process. And studies show that people with hamstring strains can get a faster recovery with static stretching techniques than dynamic ones, which we about to discuss.
And also patients with osteoarthritis can increase their ROM with proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation ( PNF ) starching techniques as well. This is great news for osteoarthritis patients where they have to depend on lifelong painkillers.
Research studies on athletes show that doing stretching exercises before training reduces the incidence of muscle fiber-related damages. But we have to be clear that it doesn’t interpret stretching reduces sports injuries. They only focus on muscle fiber-related damages.
Tendons are the tissues which muscles attach to the bones. Tendons mainly made with collagen fibers which has elastic properties also. Studies show that 2.5 to 3.5% of total muscle stretching is determined by tendons. Although the numbers may show less picture tendon is a very important structure for a muscle.
Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon of the human body. The malfunctioning of the tendon can make a person totally bedbound also.
Tendons get damaged when using without stretching. The fibro elastic structure of the tendon is made for tolerate stretch forces.
Tendinitis is inflammation over the tendon which can be caused by various reasons. Studies have shown that stretching exercises can improve tendinitis. Stretching exercises can increase blood supply to the damaged tendon and increase natural pain killers like endorphins and serotonin. Thereby promotes fast healing and pain control.
Tendons also act as energy absorbing structures. The activities with rapid tendon stretching store large amount of energy at a short period of time. In this process if the tendons are stiff, they can easily get damaged. But once tendons are trained with stretching exercises, the capability of energy absorption increases. Therefore tendons preserve in high intensity sports and activities.
In a conclusion, stretching exercises are useful to maintain flexibility, strong and healthy muscles as well as tendons. And avoiding stretching exercises can give short and tight muscles which may present as joint pain, muscle strains, and damages.
Whom that stretching exercises are not effective ?
Even though these exercises are very effective for muscle functioning there is a certain group of people who don’t get much effect. Both people with muscle damage due to neurological reasons like stroke or spinal cord problems and people with orthopedic contractures have non-contractile muscles. So there is less chance for them to regain their full ROM with the stretching exercises.
What are the targeting muscles ?
Stretching exercises are mainly targeting muscles that have big muscle bulk and good ROM. Therefore calves, hamstrings, hip flexure muscles, and quadriceps are important. Also, neck muscles, shoulder, and lower back muscles exercises need to be included in a good exercise program.
A brief overview of stretching techniques
Stretching exercises are basically categorized into three parts; static, dynamic, and pre-contraction. Static type is the traditionally more famous type but the other two components have their own uniqueness.
Static exercises are focusing on a specific position where a person has fewer movements other than stretching limbs. Static exercises can be active which is stretching by the person himself or passive that is done with the help of another.
Dynamic exercises are focusing on moving the muscle into its full range of motion. This also has an active component and a ballistic one. Ballistic exercises are doing by bouncing movements which is now less practicing as it increases the risk of muscle injury.
Static exercises are more effective than dynamic ones on damaged muscles to recover fast.
The pre-contraction model includes various other types like proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation ( PNF ), post-isometric relaxation ( PIR ), post-facilitation stretching ( PFS ), and medical exercise therapy. They use different methods to overcome the results like contraction-relaxation ( CR ), hold-relaxation ( HR ), contract-relax agonist contract ( CRAC ).
These stretching exercise modules are made for different purposes and for different people. It’s better to engage with stretching exercises especially other than the traditional static type with a good consultation from a professional.
How to use stretching exercises effectively ?
First, it has to mention that this is not one night process. If you are a person who is new to this process you have to invest some time to see the results. Because your muscles were in a state that less stress tolerable. So they have to train slowly.
According to the ACSM static exercises are best for beginners and even for pro athletes as well. For a non-athlete, it’s better to engage in stretching exercises for at least 2 to 3 days a week. You have to stretch the muscle until feeling a burning sensation. The ACSM clearly mentioned that it’s not the pain you have to feel. If you feel pain the technique is wrong and muscle can get damaged.
And once you feel a burning sensation, hold that position for 30 seconds and slowly release. Don’t do bouncing stretching exercises as it can be harmful. Also, the efficacy of the stretching is not increased after 2 to 4 repetitions of the same exercises. So it’s enough to do a maximum of 4 repetitions.
Stretching exercises have a major role in sports as well as generally as well. These have lots of benefits to facilitates our daily tasks. Maintaining strong, flexible, and healthy muscles can improve the quality of life in the general public.
1. Phil Page, 2012, CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/#!po=45.5882 )
2. I. Shrier, 2000, Stretching before exercise: an evidence based approach ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756248/ )
3. J.C. Anderson, 2005, Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1250267/ )
4. Nathalia Polisello Rossetto, Inácio Maria Dal Fabbro, Sérgio Rocha Piedade, 2013, How does static stretching influence the tendons mechanical response ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874994/#!po=13.1579 )
5. E Witvrouw, N Mahieu, P McNair, 2007, The role of stretching in tendon injuries ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2658965/ )