By Joli Guenther, MSSW, NASM-CPT
Adding a well-rounded stretching routine to your workout can be helpful or potentially injurious. It all depends on timing and technique. The benefits of stretching include decreased muscle soreness, improved range of motion, better neuromuscular coordination, and reduction in the risk of injury. Understanding proper technique and timing allows you to benefit from your stretching routine and avoid the risks that may accompany stretching that is poorly performed.
A common misperception about stretching is the need for extensive stretching prior to your workout. Your warm-up routine really should begin with smaller versions of the movements that you will perform in your workout. This may include simply performing your activity at a slower pace until your muscles are warm, or it may include a technique known as active stretching.
In active stretching, muscles that will be used intensely during your workout are gradually lengthened through fluid, repetitive movements unlike the bouncing motion frequently associated with early calisthenics. Instead, the targeted muscle is repeatedly stretched while you move smoothly in and out of the movements without pausing. The goal is to warm the muscle and prepare it for the range of motion that will be demanded during activity. Perform this type of stretching after a light warm-up, but before the activity becomes more intense. Muscles that benefit most from active stretching are any personal injury prone areas and the major powerhouses of the body, such as the calves and quadriceps.
More intense stretching can be performed after you have completed vigorous activity. At this time, the increased heat and circulation from your workout will allow your muscles to relax into a greater length. Post workout stretching also helps to work the waste products that have accumulated deep in your muscle tissues to move back into the circulation of the body and lessen post workout soreness.
The proper technique for post workout stretching is known as static stretching and involves holding stretches in one position for an extended period of time. In order to gain flexibility and the most benefit, post-workout stretches should be held for at least 60 seconds. While shorter stretches will still reduce soreness, holding your stretches for a longer duration will allow you to actually gain in flexibility over time.
A good stretching routine should address areas that are persistently tight or that have been used heavily in the activity performed. Most active people will benefit from stretching the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, and external rotators of the hips. Focusing on these areas and following the techniques of stretching provided here will allow you to experience the benefits of stretching as soon as your next workout!
Visit these links for stretching exercises.