In recent years, studies around stretching have produced mixed results. Previously, it had been the norm to carry out static stretches before physical activity. However, research has now shown that static stretching prior to exercise does not reduce the risk of injury and may even reduce performance, as the muscle is not able to produce as much force as it would have prior to stretching. Though, dynamic stretching before a workout may be the answer.
So, Why Should I Bother Stretching?
A research study found that rats with inflammation of the back caused by a carrageenan injection, showed reduced inflammation and pain improvement after two weeks of stretching for ten minutes, twice daily. The study suggests that stretching activates local pro-resolving mechanisms in acute phases of inflammation. Pro-resolving mechanisms act as inflammatory breaks and facilitate the clearance of pathogens, dying cells and debris.
Improve Flexibility and Range of Motion
Regular stretching helps to improve flexibility, which in turn can reduce the risk of injury and enhance our physical performance. Stretching also benefits our range of motion, providing more freedom of movement. The greater your range of motion, the more muscle you’ll be able to activate when working out, helping to improve strength.
Identify Areas of Imbalance
Stretching is a great way to identify areas of imbalance and correct those areas before they lead to injury. If one hip, for example, were to feel tighter than the other when stretching, this would highlight an imbalance which is likely to show up when performing exercises involving the hips, like running.
Different Types of Stretching to Try
Dynamic stretching involves actively moving the joints and muscles to mimic the activity you’re going to be performing. The controlled movements prepare the muscle for the upcoming activity by improving blood flow, which elevates the muscle temperature, reducing stiffness and increasing flexibility.
Types of Dynamic Stretches
- Ballistic Stretching - this type of stretching uses momentum to repeatedly push the body past its comfortable range of motion.
- Contract-Relax Stretching - this is a Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) technique, a more advanced form of flexibility training. It involves holding and relaxing into the stretch, but rather than contracting the muscle without moving, the muscle is contracted whilst moving.
- Dynamic Joint Mobility Drills - this involves repeated rhythmic movements through a fuller range of motion with the goal of improving the joints’ mobility.
Static stretching differs from dynamic stretching in that these stretches are held for a long period of time, allowing the muscle to fully release while lengthened. However, some studies have shown that performing static stretches before intense exercise can result in decreased muscle performance.
What's more, static stretches are more of a relaxation movement, so are best performed as part of the cool down rather than to warm up. According to research, static stretching has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digestive function.
How to Stretch Safely
So now we know why stretching matters, it’s important to understand how to stretch safely.
- Aim for balance - Make sure to stretch both sides of the body equally, unequal flexibility on one side can increase the risk of injury.
- Don’t bounce - Ease into the stretch, bouncing while you stretch can injure the muscle and contribute to tightness.
- No pain, all the gain - You should feel some tension when you’re stretching, but never to the point of pain. If a stretch feels painful, then you’ve pushed it too far. Reset your position and try again, over time your flexibility will improve.
- Breathe through the stretch - Often when holding a difficult stretch we hold our breath, but it’s important to remember to breathe!