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Stretching involves extending the limbs, lengthening and relaxing muscles, and moving joints through their range of motion, to maintain and improve muscle and joint flexibility.

Purpose

Stretching can help you become more flexible, move more freely, and relieve muscle tension. It has been shown to improve posture, balance, coordination, strength, and physical performance, as well as increase blood flow to muscles. Stretching on a regular basis may lengthen muscle fibers, allowing them to contract more forcefully during exercise. It has the ability to relax muscles and may aid in the prevention of soreness or stiffness. Some researchers believe that muscle cramps are caused by insufficient stretching, which leads to abnormalities in muscle contraction control. Stretching allows joints to move through their full range of motion, which improves biomechanics and athletic performance, reduces fatigue, and aids in the prevention of overuse injuries.

Stretching is an enjoyable activity that can be done anywhere and at any time for many people. It can be a relaxing way to start and end a workout. Stretching can also relax muscles that have become contracted as a result of emotional tension and stress, particularly the back and neck muscles. Muscle tenseness is a risk factor for pain and injury. Gentle stretching can also help to unwind the mind.

Description

Stretching can be dynamic (involving smooth, gentle movements) or static (holding a stretch without moving). Warm-ups should be followed by dynamic stretching, and cool-downs by static stretching. Stretching can also be done as a stand-alone routine or as part of an exercise routine. Stretching is an essential component of yoga, Pilates, and taichi. Body sculpting, a muscle-stretching floor program, is sometimes included in aerobic workouts. Stretching routines can include the use of a rope or strap, a partner, or a machine.

Stretching is typically directed at major muscle groups, such as the calves, thighs, hips, lower, middle, and upper back, arms, shoulders, and neck, as well as other muscles and joints that are frequently used. It should be balanced at all times, with the right and left sides stretched for the same amount of time. Stretching should be done on a regular basis, at least two or three times per week.

Stretches that are sport- or activity-specific, focusing on the muscles used in the activity, appear to be the most beneficial. Soccer players, for example, are more prone to hamstring sprains, so stretching should concentrate on the hamstrings—the muscles in the back of the thigh. Baseball players may concentrate on shoulder stretches before throwing or forearm stretches before batting. Movements specific to an activity, such as a front kick in martial arts, can be performed slowly, at a low intensity, and gradually increased in speed over the course of a warm-up.

Dynamic Stretches

Stretching dynamically prepares the body for an active workout or competition. Slow, controlled movements such as arm circles, hip rotations, walking or jogging exercises, or yoga movements are examples. Dynamic stretches are typically composed of several repetitions of about 30 seconds each, performed at a comfortable pace:

  • Sun salutations are yoga movements that stretch various body parts
  • The yoga pose downward-facing dog can be made dynamic by lifting alternate legs or pedaling the feet
  • Knee lifts or high-knee walking or jogging flex the hips and shoulders and stretch the glutes, quads, and lower back
  • Butt-kicks can be combined with walking, jogging, or running to stretch the quads and hip flexors
  • Walking with straight-leg kicks stretches the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower back
  • Lunges or walking with high-knee lunges stretches the glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and calves
  • Walking side lunges stretch the groin, glutes, hamstrings, and ankles
  • Running carioca steps—crossing the legs in front of each other by twisting the hips, with the shoulders square—stretches the ankles, abductors, adductors, glutes, and hips
  • Back pedaling—short choppy steps followed by open strides with kick-backs—stretches the hip flexors, quads, and calves
  • Scorpions—kicking the feet toward the opposite outstretched arms while lying facedown—stretch the quads, hip flexors, glutes, lower back, abdominals, and shoulders
  • Hand-walking stretches the shoulders, core, and hamstrings
  • Side bends stretch the triceps, upper back, abdominals, and obliques

There are numerous dynamic stretches for sports. Squats, lunges, and buttock kicks are common exercises performed by runners. Dynamic stretches, such as the Spider-Man—crawling on hands and feet as if climbing a wall—are used in sports that require rapid movement in different directions, such as soccer, tennis, and basketball.

Static Stretches

To lengthen muscles and increase flexibility, total body static stretches should be performed for four to six minutes following a workout or competition. Each stretch should be done slowly and steadily, held for approximately 30 seconds without bouncing, and repeated three or four times:

  • back of the calf—leaning into a support and extending the back leg with the heel pressed down standing and seated hamstring stretches
  • quadriceps—pulling the foot toward the buttocks
  • inner thighs, hips, and groin—seated with heels together in front or cross-legged and pushing down the inner thighs
  • hip flexors and groin—one knee on the floor and other leg forward and bent at the knee and the hips lowered or forward
  • iliotibial band (ITB)—standing with one leg crossed over the other at the ankle and reaching overhead with the arm
  • lower back—flattening the lower back to the floor or knee-to-chest
  • upper back—pulling the shoulder blades together or pushing the arms up and back with the fingers interlaced
  • triceps—with the arms overhead, pulling a bent elbow up and behind the head
  • rotator cuff—stretching one arm across the body with the other arm
  • internal shoulder rotators—grasping a towel with one hand behind the back and the other overhead, pulling the top hand toward the ceiling
  • neck—pulling the head gently toward the shoulder

PNF Stretching

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) was developed as a physical therapy for paralysis in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of its techniques for increasing range of motion were adapted by sports therapists and trainers during the 1990s. PNF stretching is a hybrid of passive and active stretches. Both isometric muscle muscle contraction and concentric muscle contraction, followed immediately by a passive stretch, promote autogenic inhibition, a reflex relaxation. Reciprocal inhibition is a reflex relaxation or stretching of the muscle opposite the one being stimulated.

Three PNF hamstring stretches demonstrate these concepts. Each stretch starts with lying on your back with one leg on the floor and the other straight up. A partner moves the extended leg to the point of mild discomfort and holds it for ten seconds in a passive stretch before performing one of the following stretches:

  • The hamstrings are contracted isometrically for six seconds by pushing against the partner’s hand, then relaxed back to the passive stretch for 30 seconds for hold-relax. The leg should move further with the next stretch due to greater hip flexion caused by autogenic inhibition in the hamstrings.
  • Contract the hamstrings concentrically by pushing against the partner’s hand while pushing the leg to the floor through its full range of motion, followed by a 30-second passive stretch. Because of autogenic inhibition, the leg should be able to move further.
  • To initiate autogenic inhibition during hold-relax with opposing muscle contraction, the hamstrings are contracted isometrically, with the partner applying enough force that the leg remains static for six seconds. The hip is flexed for the 30-second passive stretch to pull the leg in the same direction that it is being pushed, causing reciprocal inhibition and allowing the leg to move further.

Final Thoughts

Proper stretching technique is extremely important. Stretching incorrectly is not only ineffective, but it can also cause injury. Muscles must be warmed up before being stretched; cold muscles should never be stretched. Cold muscle stretching can directly contribute to pulled and torn muscles. Movements must also be carefully controlled at all times.

Warming up for five to ten minutes is the most important preparation for stretching. Stretching cold muscles can cause injury. Warm-up activities can include brisk walking, light jogging, cycling, jumping rope, or other total-body movements. Warming up increases blood flow to muscles, raises their temperature, increases muscle fiber elasticity, and lubricates joints. It is especially important to loosen the knees. A five-to-ten-minute light aerobic warm-up and dynamic stretches should precede PNF stretching.

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