Forced through years of physical fitness and gym classes, all the way from grade school to high school, properly stretching before any sort of physical activity was always strictly enforced. So by nature and conditioning, those who do routinely exercise put on our running shoes, stretch for a few minutes and feel ready to begin exercising. However, the fact that some stretching and procedures of how to stretch may hinder our health and athletic performance, rather than help it, is not generally talked about, or is not known or something is not enforced as much.
Stretching is given a lot of attention, since there’s no denying the potential benefits stretching reaps, such as developing and maintaining your body’s flexibility. Stretching also has the ability to relax your mind as well as increase your range of motion, which helps prevent muscle related injuries. These positive qualities of stretching have been tested and taught by personal trainers, health instructors and physical therapists.
The negative, and often dangerous, qualities of stretching have been looked at just as closely. The dangers of improperly stretching range from strains, pulls and tears within your muscles, and most frequently occur when using incorrect technique, such as an incorrect type of stretch preceding the type of exercise you intend to do or if you are not properly warmed-up before you begin to stretch. These injuries may seem minor at first, but they have the ability to greatly reduce your body’s capacity to move and could even escalate to the point where surgery is required.
To avoid any of these muscle injuries, no matter how serious, one of the most important things to do is to listen to your body. Understanding your body’s limits is equally as important. Stretching muscles to a point of blatant discomfort or pain is never advised.
The American Council on Exercise stressed that cold muscles should never be stretched. Usually, we’re taught to stretch before we engage in any physical activity, but William Levine, the director of sports medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, states that performing a small warm-up prior to stretching will allow blood to flow into your muscle tissue, thus helping to avoid any damage.
There are different types of stretches – static, dynamic and ballistic – and it’s important to note which works best for your body.
Many people use the term “passive stretching” and “static stretching” interchangeably. However, there is a distinction between the two. Michael J. Alter’s “Sport Stretch” defines static stretching as a stretch that involves holding a position, meaning you stretch to the farthest point you can reach and then hold the position. Passive stretching is a technique in which you are relaxed and make no contribution to the range of motion. Instead, an external force is created by an outside agent, either manually or mechanically.
Dynamic stretching involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both. Dynamic stretching consists of gentle controlled leg and arm swings that take you to the limits of your range of motion. In dynamic stretches, there are no bounces or “jerky” movements. An example of dynamic stretching would be slow, controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists. Dynamic stretching improves flexibility and is quite useful as part of your warm-up for an active or aerobic workout.
Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. This is a warm-up stretch, including bouncing in our out of a stretched position. Ballistic stretches involve trying to force a part of the body beyond its range of motion. These stretches are generally not the type to engage in to prepare for a workout, so steering clear of these movements would benefit your body in the most ways.
Author of “Stretching Scientifically,” Tom Kurz suggests that dynamic stretching exercises should be performed in sets of 8-12 repetitions and to only do the number of repetitions that you can do without decreasing your range of motion.
Performing more repetitions than necessary may cause you to lose some of your flexibility. What you repeat with a greater effort will leave a deeper trace in your kinesthetic memory, playing into the saying “quality over quantity.”