Stretch to Impress
Ali Othman, NSCA-CPT®
Stretching can be best described as a way for your muscles to find their freedom and for your body to discover new dimensions of motion. Athletes and dancers can witness firsthand how pliability and power unite to produce unmatched agility and strength.
The benefits of stretching have been known for ages, but science has since proven its prowess in a variety of circumstances. Improved flexibility, range of motion, posture, and joint health; increased blood flow; and corrected muscular imbalances are some benefits of stretching. Different types of stretching offer different benefits, so grab a seat for a comprehensive exploration of stretching’s transformative power.
Static stretching is the simplest and most common type. To perform a static stretch, extend the target muscle group as far as you are comfortably able and hold the position for around thirty seconds. Static stretching works best after activating your muscles through warm-ups. Take a few minutes to warm up your muscles and connective tissue and allow the flow of synovial fluid to lubricate your joints.
You shouldn’t perform static stretches before an athletic event or competition due to their potential to temporarily reduce strength and power. On the other hand, static stretching before recreational sports is a great idea because it can increase flexibility and reduce your risk of injury. To realize the full potential of static stretching, always warm up beforehand and listen to your body to be sure you don’t overdo it.
Dynamic stretching involves active movements that take your muscles and joints through their full range of motion. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching uses controlled motions and mimics the activity you are about to perform. This type of stretching also works well as a warm-up before exercising or performing a static stretch, as it increases blood flow, body temperature, and heart rate and prepares your body for the coming activity.
Myofascial release is a technique that targets the connective tissue surrounding your muscles, also known as the fascia. Myofascial tissue surrounds the body’s organs, joints, bones, nerves, and other structures. This tissue can sustain injury from trauma such as a car accident, repetitive stress like poor posture, and even inflammation, and when this tissue is injured, it can hurt. To perform myofascial release, apply pressure to specific points on your body using your hands, a foam roller, a small ball, or another device. This action helps release muscle tension and ease pain stemming from myofascial tissue.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, is a technique used to improve your range of motion. It is used by physical therapists on clients after injury or surgery and by trainers on clients whose goal is an improved range of motion. PNF involves a combination of contracting and relaxing muscles and is often performed with a partner.
To perform PNF stretching, stretch the target muscle group to its comfortable limit for twenty seconds. Follow this by actively engaging the muscles against the resistance of a partner for around ten seconds, then reengage the stretch for another twenty seconds. Each muscle engagement results in a temporary increase in the joint’s range of motion and can be followed by a deeper stretch.
Knowing the different types of stretching and when to apply each method will allow you to realize their many benefits. Of these benefits, improved flexibility is the most obvious. Stretching improves flexibility by lengthening muscles and connective tissue, making them more pliable. Over time, repeating this practice with the proper form will increase a joint’s range of motion and allow it to move more freely. Muscle memory will allow your body to adapt to the increased range of motion, eventually making it easier to get into a stretched position and less strenuous to hold the pose.
One of the body’s physiological responses to stretching is increased blood flow. Stretching triggers a response called vasodilation, or a widening of the blood vessels. Wider vessels mean reduced resistance to blood flow, increased circulation, and a positive effect on your blood pressure.
While stretching, you contract and relax your muscles, forcing the movement of blood through your vessels. This aids in circulation, nutrient delivery, and the removal of metabolic waste. Stretching inevitably increases your heart rate, causing your heart to pump more vigorously, thereby increasing blood circulation throughout your body.
Stretching also plays a vital role in maintaining joint health by promoting the circulation of nutrients to the synovial membranes lining the inner surfaces of our joints. When these membranes are healthy and properly nourished, they produce enough synovial fluid of the right consistency to lubricate your joints.
Incorporating a combination of stretches that target muscles in your hips, back, shoulders, and neck can improve your posture. Periods of extended sitting or years of repetitive movements that encourage poor posture, like a dentist leaning over a patient to work on those hard-to-reach back teeth, can lead to muscular imbalances. Muscles can become overactive and tight or underutilized and weak.
Muscle memory is a good friend to those who pay its dues. However, it can hinder us if we ignore it for too long. Continuous slouching tricks the brain into believing that slouching is your new neutral. Muscle memory will revert you to that position without fail, even though it’s painful and uncomfortable, unless you make a conscious effort to win the battle.
Stretching can release tension in muscles that are commonly tight due to poor posture. Releasing this tension relaxes the muscles, causing them to stop pulling the body into an incorrect posture. Similarly, stretching helps activate muscles that have been underused. Activating these muscles will strengthen them, allowing them to once again contribute to proper alignment.
Consistent stretching helps build a connection between your mind and muscles. Ultimately, it helps you understand the limits of your muscles, allowing you to map out their range of motion. Becoming more conscious of your body’s neutral position will help you catch yourself slouching so you can quickly correct your posture.
Stretching has emerged as a multifaceted practice with an almost unbounded opportunity to enhance your physical well-being. It offers a pathway to optimizing muscle performance and promoting healthy joints, and it’s an activity that anyone can do at any time or place. Always consult your physician before incorporating stretching or any new type of exercise into your routine, then fuse science, health, and movement by stretching to impress.
Ali Othman is an NSCA-certified personal trainer with over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness industry. He is passionate about giving people the tools to live a healthier and better-informed tomorrow.