Stretching is often overlooked by most fitness enthusiasts and even athletes. With time being such a valuable resource, many people consider stretching to be a waste of time. What many people fail to realize all the many health benefits of stretching exercises and how stretching can greatly improve their lives.
Stretching Exercises and its Many Health Benefits
- No chronic lower back pain – I don’t know if you have personally experienced extreme lower back pain, but if you have, you will know exactly what I am talking about. I personally have experienced severe lower back pain in my life to the point that it was unbearable. I couldn’t sit in a chair for more than 5 minutes without experiencing extreme discomfort. I was constantly moving around and finding a comfortable position and sleeping was nearly impossible. With a solid stretching program, however, lower back pain can be a thing of the past, and even if you don’t have any back pain, make sure it stays that way via stretching. There are some staggering statistics I found relating to lower back pain in the U.S. About 80% of the American population will experience lower back pain at some point or another in their lifetime. Back pain is the second leading cause of lost work time after the common cold. It is the third highest cause of surgery and the fifth highest reason for hospitalization. Americans spend $50 billion a year on lower back pain! Well, I’ll stop with the statistics but you get the point.
- Improve athletic performance: No matter what sport you play, being flexible can help substantially. For example, the further a swimmer can reach in the water, the faster he or she will swim. Or look at a gymnast. Without great flexibility, a gymnast would not be able to do many of things they are able to do.
- Increases flexibility: Flexibility is the degree to which each of your individual muscles will lengthen. If you are not flexible, you will be much more susceptible to muscle strains and ligament tears. Increase your flexibility by stretching!
- Increase blood flow – Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles. Increased blood flow means more nourishment for the muscles and a removal of waste products from the muscles. Increased blood flow caused by stretching can help heal muscle and joint injuries.
- Improve your balance and coordination – stretching is great for improving your balance.
Stretching And Bodybuilding!
Many people believe that bodybuilding and flexibility are incompatible and that it is either one or the other. Many bodybuilders do not stretch and therefore have a limited range of motion. However, if you are a bodybuilder and a stretching is a key part of your workout regimen, you will be mobile, flexible, and have a great range of motion.
There is a very common misconception that stretching before a workout (can be an athletic event as well) prevents injuries. This is not true. Static stretching before a workout can actually cause more damage than harm. Not warming up is what causes injuries. When you bodybuild, make sure to get 3-5 warm-up sets of 30%-60% of your usual weight before you start your first exercise for each specific muscle group. After your workout is over and you have a deep sweat going, then you should stretch your muscles. It is best to stretch your muscles when you are warm.
Stretching And Reduced Power Output!
Static stretching (static stretching is your typical standstill stretch) has been shown to actually reduce power output and strength. A study performed at the University of Nebraska examined the effects of isokinetic, concentric leg extension on both stretched and non-stretched limbs. The study showed that static stretching reduced maximal force production. There are many other studies to back this up that all have similar conclusions that static stretching may decrease performance if done before exercise. If you are interested about the specific studies, here are a couple more studies showing the relation between reduced power output and static stretching.. (1,2,3)
Stretching And Injury Prevention!
But what about injury prevention? You have probably been told throughout your life that stretching before an athletic performance will prevent injury… wrong! Static stretching has little to no correlation to injury prevention. Static stretching should be done after an athletic performance is over when the muscles are warm. It will pay off big time if you stretch consistently after your recreational activities. If you want to prevent athletic injuries get a good quality warm-up before your activity, exercise, sport, etc., perform dynamic stretching before you perform. Dynamic stretching is a type of warm-up that involves a lot of movement. It is not what you would normally think of when you think of stretching and will probably feel weird to you. If done correctly, dynamic stretching is a great way to prevent injuries. In a study comparing leg extension power after static stretching compared to dynamic stretching, the power output after the dynamic stretching was significantly higher than that after the static stretching. For a great dynamic stretching warm-up routine, check out this video. If you are an athlete and want to prevent injuries, utilize the health benefits of stretching exercises to keep you in the game instead of the sideline.
How Often Should I Stretch?
According to the American Council on Exercise, static stretching should be performed for 3o minutes 3 times a week. Other accredited organizations have similar recommendations but I am a firm believer that anything is better than nothing. Stretch whenever you can. If you are watching TV, or have a couple minutes to burn waiting for a friend to come over, do a little bit of stretching. A little bit of stretching here and there can go a long way and can reap the great health benefits of stretching.
My Phenom Fitness will have stretching videos up soon, but until then, I want you all to have some links to some quality stretching videos. Here are a great list of static stretching videos to help you become more flexible and injury-free! This link has instructional videos for every muscle group and is very informative and easy to follow. If you have the time, try to perform 2 sets of 15 seconds stretching for each individual muscle group daily. So for example, if you are doing the standing quadriceps stretch, stretch your right quad for 15 seconds, and then your left quad for 15 seconds, and then your right quad again for 15 seconds, and finally your left quad again for 15 seconds. This equates to 2 sets of 15 seconds for your quadriceps.
So Are There Any Other Forms Of Stretching Besides Dynamic And Static?!
YES! There are many different forms of stretching and all have many great health benefits. Here is a list of all the different types of stretching:
- Passive Stretching: This is also known as relaxed stretching and is very similar to static stretching. A passive stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus. One example of a passive stretch is bringing your leg up high and then holding it there with your hand. Another example of a passive stretch would be the splits (in this case the floor is the “apparatus” that you use to maintain your extended position). Passive stretching is very good for cooling down after a tough workout and can help alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness (also known as doms – doms is the feeling of soreness you get for a couple days following a workout).
- Ballistic Stretching: If you have ever tried out the P90X workouts, you have definitely heard of ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching consists of trying to push a body part of the body past its normal range of motion by bouncing it into a stretched position. An example of ballistic stretching would be continuously bouncing up and down to touch your toes when doing a hamstring stretch. Ballistic stretching has been shown to have some benefits but it has a high correlation to injury and I would definitely not recommend performing this type of stretch.
- Active Isolated Stretching: This type of stretching is where you assume a position and then hold it there using nothing other than the strength of your agonist muscles (opposing muscles). An example of this would be to hold your leg out straight in front of you. I would recommend holding this type of stretch for no more than 10-15 seconds as it can be very difficult. Many yoga poses are actually a form of active isolated stretching. Benefits of active isolated stretching includes increased flexibility and the strengthening of agonist muscle groups.
- Isometric Stretching: Isometric stretching occurs when tension is created in a specific muscle group without a change in muscle length. For this to occur there has to be an opposing force. This can occur in the form of a wall, chair, ceiling, your own hand, or preferably another person. An isometric stretch that you have most likely seen before is a hamstring one where the person being stretched lies on the floor with one leg in the air. Another person then pushes the leg back slowly to stretch the hamstring. The person being stretched tries to resist the force resulting in an isometric hamstring stretch. Another example of an isometric stretch is a calf stretch where you push against the wall with your feet apart with one foot in front of the other. The back calf muscle is the muscle being stretched. The opposing force in this instance would be the wall. Benefits of isometric stretching include being a safe and effective way of increasing your range of motion and being one of the fastest ways to improve static flexibility. It is also much more effective than passive or active stretching by themselves and it also decreases the pain of stretching. Isometric stretching is not recommended for children and those who still have growing bones. Isometric stretching is one of my favorite forms of stretching and I recommend trying to implement it into your exercise program.
- PNF Stretching: PNF stretching (also called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is more of a technique than a type of stretching. It combines passive and isometric stretching in order to achieve maximum flexibility. PNF stretching consists of a contraction, followed by rest, followed by a contraction, followed by rest, etc. For example, if you are doing a hamstring stretch where you bend down to touch your toes, you would do it like this. You would stretch for about 10 seconds, relax for 2-3 seconds, stretch for 10 seconds, relax for 2-3 seconds, etc. The idea is to try to get a deeper and deeper stretch after every “relax” period of the stretch. PNF stretching, like isometric stretching, is not recommended for those with growing bones. Benefits of PNF stretching include strengthening of the muscles that are contracted and increasing active and passive flexibility.
If you would like to see some instructional videos regarding all the different types of stretches, go to youtube and there are tons of great videos. As you can see, stretching is extremely important and should be a part of your exercise regimen. There are many great health benefits to stretching exercises and is a great addition to every exercise program. If all the different stretches are overwhelming to you, however, stick to warming up your muscles before you workout and then do some static stretches after you workout when your muscles are warm. You will feel great and prevent injury!