Stretching can (and should) be a regular part of a fitness program. We’ve all probably heard this statement many times from a variety of sources. It seems that every monthly health and fitness magazine has an article or two on stretching, it appears as a topic on daily talk shows, infomercials try to sell books and tools for stretching, and there are even chains of facilities dedicated to nothing but giving people a good stretch. So with all this information bombardment, why is stretching often absent from people’s lives?
Let us be honest with ourselves for a moment. If we wake up feeling great and our bodies aren’t screaming at us that we are in pain or that movement is difficult, we don’t really think about stretching our joints and muscles. When we are confronted with pain or tightness, maybe we default to some ibuprofen and a quick round of the stretching we remember doing in our grade school physical education classes (it was a couple or neck rolls and shoulder shrugs for a stiff neck, right?). And with so many types of stretching, where do we even begin?
We can categorize stretching in many ways, but for simplicity sake let us look at stretching in two big categories – simple stretching and Advanced Stretching (this will be defined in just a moment). Simple stretching is probably something that will seem very familiar and something you are likely acquainted with whether you remember the proper terminology for it or not. This category includes traditional static stretching (where you bring yourself to the point of stretch and then hold that position for a long period of time, anywhere from 20-60 seconds, and repeat 3-4 times), ballistic stretching (the use of repetitive bouncing movements at the point of the stretch), and dynamic stretching (the active use of continually increasing movement patterns that can mimic the exercise or sport that will be performed later). These are all types of stretching that someone can perform on their own or with some basic equipment (rope, towel, chair, etc.).
Advanced Stretching is based upon utilizing the body’s own nervous system to enhance the stretches being performed. There are a myriad of named techniques advertised in this category, but they all make us of one of two neurological triggers – the Golgi tendon organ (GTO) response or the muscle spindle reflex. The GTO is responsible for protecting a muscle’s tendon attachment from excessive stress. Have you ever lifted something so heavy that your muscles just gave out on you? That was the GTO response protecting you from tearing your tendon from the bone. Against a lesser degree of force, as would be encountered during a stretch, the GTO response enhances a muscle’s ability to lengthen after a sustained contraction. Some of the techniques that use the GTO response are Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Proprioception (PNF), Post-Isometric Relaxation (PIR), Muscle Energy Technique (MET), and Contract Relax (CR).
The other type of advanced, neurologically-based, stretching uses the muscle spindle reflex to produce what is called reciprocal inhibition. Simply put, if one muscle group contracts to produce movement, muscles that would oppose that movement must relax and lengthen. In trying to turn your head to the left, for example, the muscles that would turn your head to the left must not contract at the same time. This can be used as an advantage for stretching because the muscles will be prepared for lengthening. Some common names for this type of stretching are Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), Agonist Contract (AC), and Muscle Energy Technique (MET). Both types of advanced stretching require assistance for maximal effectiveness.
Information overload? Do not get too caught up in the names right now. Your best bet if you have not stretched before or wish to get back into it is to consult with a fitness professional (physical therapist, fitness trainer, massage therapist, yoga instructor, etc.). It will be worth the investment to have the advice of a professional who can explain and demonstrate these techniques to you in a concise manner and get you set up with a program that will meet your individual goals. Stretching can range from a simple activity to a highly nuanced activity, but when paired with a good fitness plan can be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
Feel free to stop into Worcester Fitness and ask to meet with one of our staff to talk about adding stretching to your fitness program. Send an email to our Fitness Director Andy Sharry, email@example.com for more information. If you have already decided and would like to begin right away, schedule an appointment with Massage Therapy Director Steve Dozois, or myself Chris Jones under our new Advanced Therapeutic Stretching program. Both Steve and I are are specially trained and experienced in these advanced stretching techniques. We will tailor a session specifically to meet your needs, and will design with you a plan to carry forward to meet your long-term goals.
The best overall advice for stretching is simply this – breathe, do not force movement, and be patient with yourself. A good stretch is not out of your reach!