In our previous article The Art of Stretching we presented illustrations in color with stretches for specific muscles. This time we’ll talk about static stretching, why it’s beneficial and offer some specific instructions.
Static stretching is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. With static stretching a muscle is gradually lengthen to an elongated position (to the point of discomfort) and hold that position for 30 seconds to two minutes. It is the best option for most individuals based on effectiveness, the ability to perform the technique on yourself, and the relative ease of learning the techniques. The majority of studies comparing static stretching to other methods find it to be the most effective method for improving flexibility long term. The only method found to sometimes be more effective than static stretching is proprio-neural facilitation (PNF) stretching, but this stretching technique requires the assistance of a certified professional. Other stretching techniques offer unique benefits, but are likely best learned under the supervision of a certified, and/or licensed professional.
- Elongate the muscle to a point of mild tension or discomfort and hold that position quietly and calmly. Pay close attention to your form. You should feel the stretch in the desired area.
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 90 seconds until you feel a release, or reduction in discomfort. You should notice that the release or reduction in discomfort is accompanied by a small increase in your flexibility.
- Elongate the muscle again until you reach a new point of mild discomfort or tension.
- Hold this position for 30 to 90 seconds until you feel a release, a reduction in pain, or note an increase in your range of motion.
- Again elongate the muscle to a point of mild discomfort, and hold this last position for 30 to 90 seconds until there is a feeling of release, or reduction in discomfort.
Myth: Holding stretches for 5-10 seconds is enough to increase my flexibility.
What You Should Know: 30 seconds or more per stretch is necessary for long-term improvements.
It is unlikely that stretches held for less than 30 seconds will create any long term change in your flexibility. In most studies holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more increased flexibility. Conversely, studies holding a stretch for less than 30 seconds did not consistently result in increased flexibility.
Myth: Stretching is most effective when you pull as hard as you can, and really make it hurt.
What You Should Know: Not necessary and not effective.
Stretches should be held at a point of mild discomfort, and held at this point until the discomfort disappears. You should get a feeling of release. Stretching is about relaxation. The harder you pull on a muscle, the harder it will pull back. If you stretch so hard that your body feels it is in danger of injury, you are unlikely to ever get the muscle to relax and lengthen. A study examining stretch tolerance found that surpassing an individual’s tolerance was not more effective in increasing flexibility.
Myth: Lifting will mess up my flexibility.
What You Should Know: Lifting will not blunt the effects of a flexibility program.
Certain types of training may exacerbate tightness, as athletes often exhibit flexibility below the norm. However, this should not deter any individual from lifting or stretching. Both types of exercise are incredibly beneficial and complement each other well. In a study comparing stretching alone versus stretching and resistance training, both groups made identical gains.
When Should You Stretch?
Stretch whenever you can — at the end of your work-out, when you wake-up in the morning, or in the evening while you’re watching TV. Avoid stretching just before you lift, unless recommended by a health/wellness professional. The immediate effects of static stretching may actually inhibit a muscle’s ability to perform. Studies have recently suggested that static stretching and PNF stretching reduce force output of the affected musculature, especially when performing activities that require maximal amounts of speed, strength or endurance. That is to say that the muscles involved in the stretch will not be as strong immediately following the stretch, and may be affected for up to two hours. Static stretching is a process that relies on a muscle’s ability to relax (autogenic inhibition), so that a new length may be reached. If you relax a muscle and then ask it to move, the muscle may be unable to act in optimal fashion. Try to remember a time that you were startled out of a nap or forced to move quickly upon first waking. You probably felt a little clumsy and unable to respond as effectively. It takes time for you to wake up and function at full capacity, just as it may take time and a good warm-up to perform optimally after stretching. The simplest strategy is to start your program with a low to moderate intensity warm-up (i.e. the treadmill or stairmaster) and finish your routine with a good stretching routine.
Note: Static stretching before your workout is not always a negative. Postural dysfunction and injury may create a need for specific stretching techniques before activity to improve performance and reduce the risk of further injury. A health/fitness professional can help you develop a stretching routine specific to these issues.
Source: Brookbush, Brent, “Fitness Or Fiction: The Truth About Diet And Exercise”