Restricted or tight muscles and connective tissue can result from long periods of immobilization, sedentary lifestyles, postural changes, or with pain and inflammation associated with injury.
Stretching can be a helpful way to restore normal unrestricted range of motion to allow for optimal movement and posture. Improvements gained by stretching should be maintained by adding strengthening and endurance training to the muscles opposing the ones being stretched.
Here are some tips to improve the effectiveness of your stretching.
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1. Warm Up
Stretching is not a warm up. In fact, I don’t recommend stretching cold muscles at all. It’s best to perform a dynamic warm up prior to stretching to achieve improved mobility. It can also be helpful to apply heat to the target tissue to improve its extensibility prior to stretching.
Warm Up Example: 5 minutes on the stationary bike.
The process of stretching involves elongating soft tissue by increasing the distance between both bony attachments. If one on the attachment sites is stabilized or is kept from moving, it will be easier to control only one moving part and specifically stretch the target muscle.
Left Upper Trapezius Stretch Example: While bending the neck to the side, slowly bring your right ear towards your right shoulder. Improve stabilization by sitting on your left hand to prevent your left shoulder from elevating during the stretch.
Keep your body in a neutral postural alignment while performing your stretch to prevent your body from compensating for the tight muscles.
Quadriceps Stretch Example: Since this muscle crosses two joints, the hip and the knee, it is important to control the movement of both joints. The knee must bend (flex), while the hip extends. Maintain proper alignment by preventing the leg from abducting (moving away from the center), the pelvis from rotating forward, and the lower back from over arching.
4. Avoid Pain
Although stretching can be uncomfortable for some, it is not advisable to stretch to the point of pain. Your body deals with pain by guarding or tensing up. This is the opposite of what we want to have happen when lengthening tight muscles. A better strategy would be to hold a less intense, more comfortable stretch, for a longer duration.
Stretch Duration and Intensity Example: Holding a stretch beyond the onset of resistance (stiffness) but prior to the onset of pain for 60 seconds would be better than holding a high intensity pain provoking stretch for 15 seconds.
5. Active Stretching
Active stretching, also referred to as Agonist Contraction, is when you contract the muscle opposite to the one you are trying to stretch to elicit a reciprocal inhibition (relaxation of the target muscle). Also, engaging and strengthening muscles that oppose the stretched muscle improve the permanence of the effect of the stretch and encourage better muscle balance.
Active Hamstring Stretch Example: Lying on your back, pull your knee as close to your chest as possible with your fingers interlocked behind the knee joint. Activate your quadriceps by extending the knee so that your heel is pushed up towards the ceiling. Remember to keep the knee close to your chest even as you extend. Try to keep your opposite knee extended and flat on the ground to get the best stretch!
Bonus: 6. Use a Foam Roller
Although this is not technically classified as stretching, foam roller exercises are a great way to massage tight muscles and contribute to better mobility.
IT Band Foam Roller Exercise Example: While lying on your side with the foam roller under you on the floor, roll between the top of the knee and the bottom of the greater trochanter (bony part on the side of the hip). Tip: Keep the top leg in front of your body with the foot planted on the floor to better control the movement.
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