Exercise and stretching go hand in hand together – and a great routine strategically encompasses both for optimal muscle health. In order for muscles to function properly, they need to be strong and flexible. Regular stretching is a great way to improve muscle flexibility. Plus, it is easy to add in a few moves to your existing routine to reap the benefits of a good stretch!
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching improves muscle flexibility, which can help increase joint range of motion. Improving joint range of motion can help you perform activities like climbing stairs, sitting in a chair, and even walking! Your joints need to be free to move throughout a functional range for these activities to occur. Additionally, improving your range of motion can boost your performance in sports and other forms of exercise. Promoting muscle flexibility with stretching can also reduce your risk of injuries and enable your muscles to perform their specific actions with efficiency. A healthy muscle is both strong and flexible.
What happens when a muscle is stretched?
While the exact physiological response of muscles to stretching is not completely understood and often debated in current literature, we do have a general consensus on a few concepts. Muscles are made up of individual fibers, and within these fibers are structures called sarcomeres. The sarcomere is the most basic unit that facilitates contraction of the muscle, and when a muscle is stretched, these units are also stretched which in turn allows for elongation of the muscle fiber. While some muscle fibers may stretch, others may stay at rest. It is not confirmed in the literature whether or not stretching causes sustained lengthening of a muscle.
There is also a neurological component to muscle stretching. Within each muscle, there are receptors that interpret how much stretch is placed on the tissue at a given time. These receptors help ensure proper muscle tone and prevent injury through complex reflex and response mechanisms.
Additionally, when a muscle is stretched this information is conveyed to the nervous system and can have a relaxing effect on the muscle and body. This is why stretching is often used to reduce muscle tone and promote nervous system relaxation.
Types of Stretching
Dynamic stretching involves stretching a muscle during controlled movements. When performing dynamic stretching, you should begin moving the joint and stretching the muscle through a partial range of motion, progressively increasing the range as you continue. Dynamic stretching is best before an activity and is used to warm up the body, preparing it for certain movements. It can also help promote motor control and restore dynamic function. It is important to note that dynamic stretching utilizes controlled movements, and not rapid or jerky movements that quickly force a muscle to stretch or bring a joint past its normal range of motion in that manner.
Static stretching is the prolonged hold of a muscle in the lengthened position without additional movement. Typically static stretches are held for 30-90 second increments and are thought to promote muscle relaxation, postural awareness, and even body alignment in various positions. Static stretching is typically recommended after exercise, particularly once the muscle has already been warmed up to some extent.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
There are multiple PNF stretching techniques, but they all incorporate muscle contraction in combination with stretching the muscle to its limit to trigger a reflexive response. While the exact mechanisms of PNF stretching are complex and debated, it is the general consensus that the facilitation of specific muscle contractions and application of prolonged stretch results in neural inhibition that allows the muscles to relax and achieve a deeper stretch. PNF stretching is often used in physical therapy with various patient populations as it can help facilitate improved range of motion as well as muscle flexibility and neuromuscular control.
As with exercise, there are some essential stretching safety tips to keep in mind.
Never stretch a “cold” muscle.
It’s best to stretch a muscle after physical activity to prevent injury and even improve performance.
Avoid stretching into pain.
A stretch should feel effective (noticeable tension), but comfortable. There should never be sharp, shooting pain or extreme discomfort.
Stretch both sides of your body.
When possible, it’s great to target both sides of your body with stretches. Keep in mind it is perfectly normal for one side to feel more flexible than the other, but it’s important to give both sides some attention!
Make stretching a habit.
The best way to see the benefits of stretching is to make it a part of your routine.
Consult with a professional.
If you have suffered an injury, have had recent surgery, or just don’t know where to start when it comes to stretching, consult a physical therapist! Download the OneStep app today to be connected with a licensed physical therapist who can create the ultimate strength and flexibility program customized just for you.