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At one point or another, everybody has heard of stretching exercises; either during physical education classes at school or during recovery of an injury. Everyone has performed some type of it during their life. However, not many understand how it works, and even less do it the right way. In this article, we will give you the 7 things you need to know about stretching before you get started.

What is stretching?

Simply put, stretching are exercises that elongate muscles. There are 3 main types: static, dynamic, and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation). We all perform some form of static stretching during our lives. This is where you bend over and touch your toes. A dynamic stretch would be during a fluid motion, like kicking your leg up in front of you. PNF is when you are in a static stretch and go through bouts of contraction and relaxation of the muscle being stretched. Which type is the best, depends on when it’s performed, by whom, and the final goal.

Why stretching is important and feels good?

Stretching exercises have been incorporated into exercise routines widely during the past few decades because of their benefits. Some of the reported benefits are improved range of motion, reduced pain, increased flexibility, injury prevention, and others. The truth is, the benefits of a stretching routine depend on the type used, when it’s used, and the reason it’s used.

For example: It has been shown that static stretching can decrease one’s strength performance by up to 24% when performed before the strength exercise. This would not be beneficial for a high-level athlete that is always trying to push harder in every training session. On the other hand, static stretching has been seen to increase strength in the long run due to physiological changes that take place inside the muscles and ligaments.

The mechanisms on which stretching exercises act on the body are still up for debate. Some scientists believe it’s the alteration in neurological systems during the stretch that decreases pain perception, and others believe it’s a shift in energy dynamics within the mechanism itself. The only thing certain is that when performed correctly and at the right time, it gets the job done!

Are stretching and warm up the same?

The short answer is NO!

Both activities prepare the body for the physically demanding activity that follows, yet they are not the same. One could say that stretching is the final component of a warm-up. The purpose of a warm-up is to bring the body to a certain level of readiness for what comes next. This includes body temperature, agility, speed, range of motion, and other sport-specific components. On the other hand, stretching is used to activate our muscles throughout the full range of motion. This allows the muscles to push the limits during the workout. The combined effect is a well-oiled biological machine that can improve its performance day after day.

However, as mentioned above, not all stretching is the same. The best option of stretching after the warm-up is dynamic. This does not incorporate any static stretching since this has been seen to reduce strength performance when performed before a workout.

How stretching improves flexibility?

We’ve all tried to do “the splits” at a young age. Some more successfully than others! Dancers and martial artists are some of the most flexible athletes. Not only do they have a greater range of motion in their movements, but they also have full control and power throughout that range. Not all of them were born that way. Many had to work their way up to that level.

But how does stretching improve flexibility? Scientists believe that taking a muscle to its end range of motion repetitively initiates a process called “Myofibrilogenesis”. Simply put, this process adds muscle to the end of the muscle. Myofibrilogenesis is something that has been observed in animals that underwent extreme stretching routines, and they believe a similar effect happens in humans. If this is the case, a longer muscle between two bones will allow for a greater range of motion and as a result, flexibility.

How does stretching prevent injury?

Injuries are multifactorial. In other words, there are a lot of things that come together for an injury to occur. Stretching could be one of these components. By improving flexibility, control and power throughout the full range of motion, stretching gives us a head start in injury prevention.

In our muscles, some neurons called mechanoreceptors are constantly feeding the body with information about the muscles’ tension and activity. Stretching helps reduce tension in the muscles, therefore, allowing these mechanoreceptors to be a little more “relaxed”. In this state, they have a better chance of responding to a fast stretch, and so you catch yourself before you twist your ankle.

One cannot say that stretching alone, prevents injuries but if there is a chance it can help why not take advantage of it?

Which stretching technique is recommended by experts?

When you look at the evidence, it is easy to see that stretching can bring a lot of good stuff to the table. Depending on the activities that one partakes in, the type of stretching that will provide the most benefits is different. But overall, as a chiropractor, I would recommend everyone uses dynamic stretching after their warm-up and static stretching after their workout. This way you have the short-term benefits of stretching before the workout without compromising your strength, and the long-term effects of static stretching from after the workout.

How often should you stretch?

Even though a thorough stretching session may take up to 30 minutes, 3-5 minutes a day could provide you with the relief you are looking for. As explained above, it is best to perform dynamic stretches before your workout, and static after your workout. I would still recommend stretching once a day even if you don’t work out. It might end up being the reason you start working out.

Try these little tricks and see for yourself the benefits you can reap from them.

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References

Marek, Sarah M et al. “Acute Effects of Static and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power Output.” Journal of athletic training vol. 40,2 (2005): 94-103.

Medeiros DM, Martini TF. Chronic effect of different types of stretching on ankle dorsiflexion range of motion: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Foot (Edinb). 2018 Mar;34:28-35. doi: 10.1016/j.foot.2017.09.006. Epub 2017 Oct 27. PMID: 29223884.

Rubini, Ercole C et al. “The effects of stretching on strength performance.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 37,3 (2007): 213-24. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737030-00003

Sweeting, David et al. “The effectiveness of manual stretching in the treatment of plantar heel pain: a systematic review.” Journal of foot and ankle research vol. 4 19. 25 Jun. 2011, doi:10.1186/1757-1146-4-19

Witvrouw E, Mahieu N, Danneels L, McNair P. Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Sports Med. 2004;34(7):443-9. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434070-00003. PMID: 15233597.