Stretching not only improves appearance, lengthens muscles, and gives that lean, toned look on stage, but it also improves fitness and health. It is the ultimate for preventing injuries; in fact, at least 50% fewer overextension injuries are reported with athletes who use a regular stretching routine compared to those who don’t! Stretching is a great warmup or cooldown and improves muscular coordination, as well as prevents soreness and promotes faster recovery.
A smart stretch must be controlled, gentle and continuous. In the stretching exercises, when we stretch a muscle, it reacts in an opposing manner to hold on to the joint, a very important, natural and necessary mechanism to avoid sustaining injuries in our daily lives. But it is not only the muscles that are stretched, although they are in fact the biggest protagonists. The entire joint structure is stretched. The ligaments, muscle fascias, joint capsules and especially the tendons, are compromised during the stretching exercises. When one of these structures is stretched beyond its threshold of resistance, it suffers damage, as is the case with sprains.
Smart stretching takes the joint to a point close to its limits, and so a certain amount of discomfort is normal while performing them. When this discomfort becomes pain, then we may have exceeded said limit, and we may be getting dangerously close to an injury. At the opposite extreme is the excessively lax joint, where movements are easily taken beyond the normal limits. It is at the halfway point that one finds virtue and balance. Following the stretching movement, the tension partially gives way after 3 or 4 seconds (without moving, the posture has become more pleasant), and that is a good indication that you are doing things right.
One not-so-smart stretch is that which forces a joint beyond its capabilities, which produces bouncing, or forces a muscle to hold a specific posture at the same time it pretends to stretch it (such as “standing up straight, flexing the torso with knees straight, trying to touch the ground”).
Finally, it is necessary to point out a dominant factor in obtaining a good stretch: concentration. In stretching concentration is absolutely necessary. The person who stretches must concentrate on the area being stretched, and he/she cannot be distracted in conversations with his stretching partner, TV, music etc. If you are distracted you will have great difficulty in reaching the optimum stretching point, and if you fall short then the session will not have been very productive. If you overdo it you may injure yourself. Furthermore, in order to be able to concentrate and feel the muscles being stretched, it is necessary to have a certain knowledge of anatomy. And this is where our illustrations will come handy as they will pinpoint the exact muscle being stretched.
How and When to Stretch
Various regular athletes can have very different stretching routines. What is the correct way to plan stretching? There is no single correct answer.
From all the different options presented, we could plan two basic models of stretching:
- Warm-up – Stretch – Athletic activity – Stretch
- Warm-up – Stretch
In the first option, stretching is presented as both a preparation for and a recuperation from the practice of physical exercise itself. In the second option, the stretching “is the physical exercise,” meaning this is a session focused on stretching. There is only one exception to stretching without warming up, and that is the stretching done to get the stiffness out of the body resulting from prolonged postures at work or during the course of daily living, although that is more the case of exercises of joint mobility that are not performed for the purpose of improving the degree of flexibility.
Anyone who wishes to maintain an acceptable degree of joint mobility should stretch at least 3 to 7 times a week in sessions lasting approximately 15 minutes. Yet if the goal is to actually improve – not just maintain – flexibility, then these stretching sessions should be increased to 5 or 6 times a week and last from 15 to 30 minutes each. Among the elite athletes, whose sport practices demand tremendous joint mobility from them (for example gymnastics), the time dedicated specifically to stretching is generally more than one hour per day and it is done every day of the week.
Each exercise should be repeated between 3 and 6 times, holding each of them for approximately 10 to 20 seconds. It is better to stretch almost all of the muscles during each stretching session rather than divide them into separate muscle groups on different days (as is the case with strength training). If pressed for time, you may divide the body in two and do the exercises corresponding to each of the 2 areas of the body on alternate days.
During the short rest periods in the stretching sessions, we can stretch the antagonistic muscle group. For example, if you are stretching the quadriceps, in the rest periods between consecutive sets you could stretch the hamstrings. This is useful for making up time and for not leaving any areas of the body un-stretched.
For more about stretching check our The Art of Stretching – 36 Pictures and a Video to Show You Exactly Which Muscle You Are Stretching and The Art of Stretching – 53 Additional Images to Show You Exactly Which Muscle You Are Stretching.