When it comes to a well-rounded fitness program, stretching is kind of like flossing. We all know that we should be doing it, but we really don’t make time for it. It seems tedious and at times even painful. I mean, who wants to go through that?
Stretching is actually a controversial subject in strength circles. Some people are adamantly opposed to it, thinking all stretching threatens strength and performance. But, if you have ever had a tight muscle and spent a couple of weeks “working it out”; you know that some stretching can actually make you feel incredible.
As with most controversies, there are two sides to the story, while the truth lies somewhere in the middle. So what should you do? It depends on what type of activity you perform, your fitness goals, and the current state of your body.
There are two different kinds of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching was long considered a “warm up” for the body. It involves getting into a position and holding it for about 30 seconds. Static stretches include bending down to touch the floor, sliding into a runners lunge, or leaning over staggered straight legs to perform a hamstring stretch. Various studies have proven time and time again the static stretching without a warm up is not a good idea. You can tear a muscle. And, if you are interested in improving performance, stretching beforehand can decrease speed and/or strength. Static stretching is not a warm up; in fact, your body needs to be warm to perform them. It should be done afterwards and thought of a way to increase flexibility post workout.
Dynamic stretching is a bit different. Swinging your arms in circles, lifting your knees to activate your hips and kicking your legs are all examples of a dynamic stretch. These kinds of movements can actually serve as part of the warm up. You want to think of this as preparation for your workout…. involve the muscles you will be using to get the moving. To be on the safe side, it is always a good idea to do a short bout of cardio prior to any stretches and if you don’t know how to dynamically stretch, it would be a good idea to have a fitness expert show you.
If you have tight muscles or a certain area of your body always seems to hurt, it may seem natural to stretch. But usually a tight muscle is an indication of a muscular imbalance. For example many people feel the back of their legs (the hamstrings) are tight. That usually means the opposing muscle is weak and underused. In this case, it’s the quadriceps muscle group that needs to be worked. A physical therapist or well educated personal trainer would know some strengthening exercises you can do to help correct that imbalance. Exercising the weak muscle in conjunction with dynamic movements pre-workout and certain static stretches after the body is warm can help. There is also something called myofacial release that you can do on your own with a foam roller or discuss with a massage therapist.
While a lot of people consider yoga a form of stretching, it is kind of in a class by itself. There are many types if practice. Some focus on meditation and relaxation while others are more physical. You do not want to go into a yoga class cold and perform stretches; it’s similar to doing a static stretch without a warm up. However many forms of yoga incorporate their own warm ups making it a safer way to practice: bikram is often done in a heated room, vinyasa includes a flow warm up before doing anything static.
In the end when and how often you stretch really depends on your goals. The same program is not going to work for a sprinter compared to a bodybuilder or marathon runner. Talk with an expert on what works best with your exercise program and don’t be too proud to have someone show you how to stretch. The right movements can improve performance, decrease pain, and release tension.
For questions on this article or anything else fitness related email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle Fiscus writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com. Michelle and her husband own a personal training and nutrition business based in Frederick County and hold industry certifications and credentials.