So, you’ve done your warm-up, completed a great workout and now you’re ready for a protein-hearty meal (which you’ve worked so hard to earn). Then realize that you missed your after workout cool-down stretching. You mumble to yourself “I’ll just do it later..” We know how this story ends… you never stretch LATER! While many of us have busy schedules and try to make every second of our workout count, stretching is an absolute must have before or after any workout.
So, you may be asking, “Why is stretching so important?”
Let’s start with the basics – some common types of stretching, benefits of stretching and some great stretching examples.
Static stretching is a stretch held in a challenging but somewhat comfortable position for 30 to 90 seconds. This is the most common form of stretching you’ll see and generally the safest for improving flexibility and may be used before or after activity. Example, to stretch your shoulder, cross one arm across your chest and hold this position for 30-90 seconds.
The benefits of static stretching are in that they can be performed alone with zero to minimal assistance. Static stretching helps improve general flexibility but at a slower rate since you aren’t “forcing” your muscles into deeper positions. Rather you are progressively lowering or pulling your muscles into a progressively deeper stretch by relaxing the targeted muscles for approx. 30-90 seconds. Static stretching is a safe and great way to progressively loosen tight muscles.
Static stretching is best as a cool-down – NOT a warm-up. Completing static stretching before a workout may be dangerous especially if you plan on lifting weights or tackling sprints on your local track. Static stretching may relax your muscles a bit too much prior to workout which may result in injury.
Dynamic stretching is a style of stretching is a bit more advanced and commonly seen on TV by athletes getting warmed up. These stretches mimic the activity about to be performed on the field, court or in the weight room. It helps prepare joints and muscles for full body movements and serve as a great warm-up. Example, jogging in place, jumping jacks, skipping and marching.
Dynamic stretches are a great way to warm-up before exercise to ensure optimal readiness. Dynamic stretches help drive blood to the muscles and joints that are about to be used. This helps prepare the body and prevent injuries. Think of your muscles, tendons and ligaments as rubber bands. If you placed a rubber band in a freezer overnight, then took it out of the freezer and tried to stretch it quickly, it would snap! A proper dynamic warm-up helps to ensure that your body won’t get injured when you start moving it. And a dynamic stretch can be a variety of things, like performing light weight chest press reps before you start lifting heavier weight or completing jumping jacks until you begin a light sweat. Take caution, these warm-ups can cause injury if not properly performed. You must make sure that you are slowly progressing the dynamic stretch, movement or warm-up intensity over time.
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) is another advanced form of stretching that uses a method of lengthening and contraction of the muscle to quickly increase the range of motion of the target muscle(s). You’ll always be assisted by your trainer with this style – for example, if your hamstring needs attention, you will lie on your back with both legs laying flat. Your trainer will elevate one leg to the ceiling (at approx. 90°) and hold this stretching position for ~10 seconds. After the 10 second stretch, your trainer may hold this position as you lightly drive your heel down toward the ground. You may repeat this process 3-5 times or until the targeted muscle relaxes.
PNF stretching may be the best way to increase the range of motion of tight muscles and joints. You will need a trained professional to complete this style of stretching (if not completed with a professional you can really get hurt). With the help of a certified personal trainer you can use PNF stretching before or after your fitness program. Let’s say your hamstring is really tight from a long day at work and it is affecting the way you are walking and bending. PNF is a great way to quickly relax those stubborn tight muscles so that you can safely complete your workout. PNF is also great to use after workouts too. If muscles start tightening or cramping after hard exertions like sprints, PNF stretching will help those cramped muscles relax so that you can recover more quickly.
Ballistic stretching is also a great way to warm-up, uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. This is stretching, or warming up, by bouncing into (or out of) a stretched position. Example, in a standing position, fold forward at your waist and try and touch your toes with your hands. Now bounce your arms and torso up and down by using your stretched hamstring muscles. With every repetition, gently bounce lower and lower toward your feet until you reach the desired range of motion. Although ballistic stretching is a great way to prepare your body for sport or explosive activity you must be careful (this is advanced). If your body isn’t properly warmed up and you bounce or pull your body too hard you are more likely to sprain muscles, tendons or ligaments.
Every full-body stretch should be prescribed and ideally executed by a certified personal trainer to ensure that it’s right and safe for you. Let me share with you here one of my personal sample stretching routines.
Before any exercise, I perform some type of dynamic warm-up depending on the activity to be performed. Remember – NEVER STRETCH COLD MUSCLES! Which may consist of a few minutes of light walking or stationary bike to increase heart rate which also helps loosen the myofascial tissue surrounding muscles. Fascia is natural collagen which helps hold muscles and organs in place inside your body but can hinder flexibility as well as increasing the risk of injury before a workout.
If I’m strength training that day, then I’ll perform a movement with either little to no weight at all (which also helps with form) before progressing into heavier sets. If it’s a cardio day, then I usually just warm-up with the bike and perform basic movements such as high knees, lunges or butt-kicks.
After finishing the main workout, I follow up with a light cool down with a few minutes of walking followed by static stretching. While I may have some more advanced stretches in my arsenal, I generally like to stick with the basics – starting from my head and ending with my feet. This is probably the most relaxing part of my day for me!
For those further looking to expedite their flexibility consider self-myofascial release or deep tissue massages weekly or bi-weekly. Aside from preventing injury you also get the added benefits of stress relief, general fitness and improved mind-body health.
Stretching does absolute wonders for our bodies. It helps increase the range of motion of muscles and joints which is paramount for any body. Having a full range of motion allows the full use of our bodies while keeping us balanced.
So maybe next time before you blow off the post-workout stretch or feel compelled to skip a warm-up you’ll think back to the time you read this!