Stretching is important and there are several ways to implement it into an exercise program. In Part One of this article, we discussed why stretching and flexibility are important components of fitness. Now, we will apply the philosophy to practice.
Static stretching techniques are those which we typically associate with individual stretching exercises. These stretches are performed by moving a joint to its end range of motion and beyond until the desired stretch is felt in the target muscle. The stretch is held elongated for a prescribed period of time and then relaxed.
The time periods may vary from 15 to 60 seconds depending on the intensity of the stretch. For instance, the lower the intensity of the stretch the longer it should be held to maximize effect. Regardless of the length of time that the stretches are held, the intensity of the stretch should be such that the discomfort in holding the stretch is sufficient that holding it longer than the prescribed time is extremely uncomfortable. If your intent is to hold stretches for 20 seconds, the intensity of the stretch should be such that holding it for longer than the 20 seconds is difficult due to the discomfort.
Examples of static stretches:
Seated Hamstring Stretch – While seated on the floor, place the sole of one foot against the inside of the opposite thigh with the opposite knee extended. Keeping the back straight, lean the torso forward until a strong stretch is felt in the back of the thigh. Hold for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
The Standing Quadriceps Stretch – While standing, grasp one ankle and bring the heel to the buttock. Push the knee downward toward the floor and push the hip forward while keeping the back straight until a strong stretch is felt in the front of the thigh. Hold for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Doorway Chest/Biceps stretch – Grasping the inside of a doorway with both hands, step through the doorway keeping the arms and back straight until a strong stretch is felt in the chest and biceps. Hold the stretch for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching techniques take advantage of the brief period of relaxation which follows maximal muscular contractions. These stretches require the use of a partner to apply appropriate resistance to the target muscle while contracting it from a stretched position and to assist with elongation of the target muscles.
The procedure for this technique is as follows:
1) Place the target muscle in a comfortably stretched position.
2) Contract the target muscle isometrically for 5-10 seconds against the resistance applied by your partner.
3) Relax the target muscle.
4) Your partner assists in elongating the muscles through the gained range.
5) Hold the stretch for 15-60 seconds and relax.
Supine Hamstring Stretch – With the assistance of a partner, lie on your back and raise one leg, keeping the knee straight, until a strong stretch is felt in the back of the thigh. Contract the hamstring muscles isometrically against your partner’s resistance for 5-10 seconds and then relax. As you relax, allow your partner to increase the intensity of the stretch to a tolerable level and hold for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Prone Quadriceps Stretch – With the assistance of a partner, lie on your stomach and bend one knee, keeping the back and hip straight, until a strong stretch is felt in the front of the thigh. Contract the quadriceps isometrically against your partner’s resistance for 5-10 seconds and then relax. As you relax allow your partner to increase the intensity of the stretch to a tolerable level and hold for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Chest/Biceps Stretch – With the assistance of a partner, extend your arms behind you with palms out and elbow straight until a strong stretch is felt in the chest and biceps. Contract the chest and biceps isometrically against your partners resistance for 5-10 seconds and relax. As you relax allow your partner to increase the intensity of the stretch to a tolerable level and hold for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Reciprocal Inhibition Techniques
When a muscle contracts, its antagonist relaxes through a neurologic process called reciprocal inhibition. This effect is heightened by contracting the antagonist of the target muscle against a mild resistance, and therefore, can be used to increase the effect of stretching exercises.
You can perform reciprocal inhibition techniques alone as in the static stretches, or with a partner as in the PNF Techniques.
The procedure for using reciprocal inhibition stretching techniques is as follows:
1) Place the target muscle on a mild stretch.
2) Isotonically contract the antagonist to the target muscle.
3) While contracting the antagonist isotonically the target muscle is elongated as the joint moves.
4) Hold the target muscle on stretch for 15-60 seconds and then relax.
Supine Hamstring Stretch – Lying on your back, raise one leg upward keeping the knee straight (you may wish to utilize some form of assistance at this point). Contract the quadriceps as if you were performing a kicking motion while attempting to increase the intensity of the stretch. Hold the stretch position for 15-60 seconds and relax.
Quadriceps Stretch – Lying on your stomach, bend one knee keeping the hip and back straight. Contract the hamstring muscles while attempting to increase the intensity of the stretch. Hold the stretch for 15-60 seconds and relax.
Chest/Biceps Stretch – With the assistance of a partner, extend the arms behind you with the elbows straight and the palms outward. Contact the back muscles as if to bring the hands together behind you while your partner increases the intensity of the stretch to a tolerable level. Hold the stretch for 15-60 seconds and relax.
You may wish to use these reciprocal inhibition techniques in combination with PNF stretches. Upon completion of the target muscle contraction, actively contract the antagonistic muscles to further relax the target muscle group and increase the intensity of the stretch even further.
Some Final Considerations
As stretching does not tax the energy producing systems like aerobic or anaerobic exercise, it may be performed daily or even several times per day. However, there are several guidelines which should be followed to maximize the results of your flexibility exercises and at the same time prevent injury.
Never stretch a cold muscle. Perform a warm-up of continuous low intensity exercises which involve large muscle groups to increase body temperature such as cycling, walking, jogging, rowing, etc. Warm compresses can also be applied to the areas to be stretched to increase localized temperature. The increased temperature makes body tissue more extensible, and therefore, easier to stretch with greater comfort. Avoid the use of topical “deep heat” creams as they only create the perception of heat and do not actually increase body temperature.
Avoid using ballistic movements or “bouncing” the extremity at the end range of motion. This will increase the likelihood of injury while stretching. Always move in a gentle and controlled manner.
Never stretch an acutely injured muscle. Acute symptoms should be treated with P.R.I.C.E. Stretching can be initiated approximately 48 hours after injury unless the inflammatory symptoms continue. Always increase the intensity of the stretches in a slow, progressive manner after injury.
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