An introduction to stretching methods
The benefits of regular stretching are known to most people, however many people do not know that virtually all methods of stretching can be placed in one of three general categories; relaxed stretching, dynamic stretching, and isometric stretching.
These stretching categories are distinguished by how they attempt to alter or reset the stretch reflex when a muscle is stretched. What is the stretch reflex? Here is an example that we’ve all probably experienced.
It’s the end of a physically active day and you decide to do a little stretching before bed. You prepare yourself to do some toe touches; feet apart, straighten the legs, bend forward from the waist, lower yourself down and then … thud, your palms touch the floor. Wow! Amazing! You’ve never stretched that far before!
You hold the stretch a few seconds and feel a warm tingling taughtness at the back of your legs that skirts the edge between pain and pleasure. You rise up slightly, then lower yourself down again. This time you feel a deeper release in the muscles as you drop to a little lower position. You hang timeless, like a cloud in space, until your body informs you that it’s time to stop. You stand up, shake your legs out a little, and retire to bed, completely satisfied.
The next day you leap out of bed ready to repeat last night’s performance in your morning routine. You loosen the neck and shoulders a little, rotate the trunk and hips, perform a few more routine warm-ups then ready yourself for toe touches. You assume a proper stance, bend forward, lower down, and … OUCH! There’s a tug on your hamstrings that pulls like a dog’s leash. It stops you, barely halfway to the floor. Surprised but determined, you rise up to try again—this time a little more forcefully. Although you manage to get a bit lower on the second try, the contraction at the back of your legs is sharper. It leaves a tingling residue of pain that causes you to stop and abandon the stretch. The same stretch that just hours before felt so free and natural. What happened? The activation of the stretch reflex.
The stretch reflex is a safety mechanism built into a muscle. When a muscle is stretched, special groups of cells called stretch receptors (contained in the muscle fibers) inform the central nervous system about their state of tension. This information is received by the central nervous system, which sends a message back to the muscle telling it to contract. This contraction acts as a brake on the muscle, preventing it from stretching too far and being injured.
In the case of the evening stretch, the muscles were warm and elastic with plenty of blood flowing through them from a full day of activity. After receiving this information from the muscles, the central nervous system applied only a mild contraction allowing a greater stretch to occur. It then released the contraction as the muscles relaxed more deeply, allowing for an even greater stretch.
In the case of the morning stretch, the muscles were inactive for a period of several hours during sleep. When the attempt was made to touch the toes, the stretch reflex contracted the muscles firmly. This prevented them from lengthening too much before they were sufficiently warmed-up.
As I stated earlier, the three general categories of stretching methods can be distinguished by how each attempts to reset or alter the stretch reflex to a lower tension level. This allows for a greater range of motion, with a reduced risk of injury. Let’s take a look at each of these stretching categories in more detail.
Stretching for Life – continued Relaxed Stretching This is the most common and widely practiced form of stretching. It is characterized by slowly relaxing your body into a stretch and holding it there for a time. Imagine a ballerina with her leg held up to the bar, gracefully lowering her rounded torso to it. As the name implies, you assume positions that let you relax your muscles as you move into the stretch. You feel the tension in the muscles created by the stretch reflex. As you stretch, you move past the point of tension a little, hold, then move out of the stretch. As you repeat this sequence, eventually the stretch reflex is adjusted and the level of tension in the muscle lessens and you can ease into a new position.
Advantages: Relaxed stretching can be done anytime. It does not cause fatigue in the muscles, so you can do it when you are tired. It is the safest method of stretching which makes it ideal to use when you are recovering from an injury. You will instinctively do relaxed stretching after being in one position for too long because it just plain feels good.
Limitations: Although it is the safest method of stretching to use, it is also the slowest to gain new levels of flexibility. Relaxed stretching also won’t build strength in a muscle, as do other forms, and may even diminish it if done to an excessive degree.
Prescription: Do relaxed stretching before a workout, then afterward as a cool down. It may also be used as a counterbalance to fatigue, stress, or being in one position to long.
Dynamic stretching (sometimes called ballistic stretching) can be defined as a stretch or movement which is started by a muscular contraction but is completed by momentum. This momentum often takes the muscles outside a normal range of motion. Dynamic stretching most closely resembles the activities in which we all engage. Imagine a football kicker warming-up to punt a ball with a few half speed kicks in the air; a golfer gliding through a swing with an imaginary club; a baseball player loosening arm and shoulder with a relaxed throwing motion. Contrary to current wisdom, dynamic stretching is completely natural and safe if done properly. Begin by lightly swinging the limb to be stretched, and feel for the point of tension or resistance in the muscles. As the level of tension in the muscles decreases you can increase the range of motion until you feel you’ve reached your maximum range. At this point continue doing a few more repetitions. Stop before the muscles get fatigued. Muscles are less elastic when they are tired so their ability to stretch is diminished. If you persist in doing dynamic stretches when your muscles are fatigued, you run the risk of resetting the stretch reflex back to a higher tension level.
Advantages: Dynamic stretching creates elasticity in the muscles, and if practiced consistently it can greatly reduce the time needed to warm-up before a workout.
Limitations: The effectiveness of dynamic stretching is reduced when muscles are tired. Also, if you stretch to your maximum range too quickly and forcefully using dynamic stretching, you may develop small tears or fissures in the muscle fiber which will heal in a less elastic condition. This can inhibit your ability to gain the flexibility levels you desire.
Prescription: First, do a small amount of relaxed stretching to limber the joints, then do your dynamic stretches, followed by your workout. Include as many dynamic stretches that resemble movements in your sport or activity as you can.
Isometric stretching is a form of stretching where a muscle is first stretched and then contracted against some form of resistance for a short period of time (about five seconds) before being released. This stretch, contract, release cycle is repeated from three to five times, increasing the stretch a little with each sequence until your maximum range of motion is achieved. The resistance is created by stretching and contracting against an immovable object and using a weight to apply force to the stretching muscles. Imagine again, a dancer with her leg outstretched on the bar. This time she lowers the weight of her torso just to the first sign of tension in the stretched muscles. Then she contracts the stretched muscles at the back of her leg by pushing downward against the bar, holding this position a few seconds and then releasing the contraction. She lowers her torso down a little further and repeats the sequence. With each stretch, contraction, and release, the muscle tension caused by the stretch reflex is lessened creating a gain in flexibility.
Advantages: Isometric stretching is the fastest method of gaining new levels of flexibility in muscles. To contract a muscle with a load or weight on it is the basic principle in developing strength. This is why isometric stretching develops strength in a muscle throughout a full range of motion.
Limitations: To reap the greatest benefit and minimize any damage to your connective tissue, your muscles have to be healthy and strong to do isometric stretching.
Prescription: Isometric stretching works by activating the Golgi tendon reflex. This is a special stretch receptor located in the tendon, and designed to pick up sensations of too much stretch or stress on the muscles. When activated, it overrides the muscle contractions caused by the stretch reflex and simply shuts the muscle down in order to protect the tendon from injury. Because of this muscular shut-down, it’s not good to do isometric stretching before or during your workout. Do isometric stretching right after your workout – two to four times per week in sets of three to five repetitions per muscle group. Hold each rep about five seconds. Hold the last rep a little longer – up to thirty seconds
Regular stretching along with aerobic and strength building activities will increase the muscles’ normal resting length, making them more elastic, and greatly reducing the risk of injury. Developing an awareness of tension levels in the muscles caused by the stretch reflex, plus an understanding of the three methods of stretching, will give you the ability to create a body equipped to perform at the levels you need, for a lifetime.