People are getting wise to the benefits of stretching. According to Fast Company Magazine, recovery and stretch studios are the next big boutique fitness studio trend. Some new studios include Stretch Lab, Joe Stretch and Stretch*d. They are all aim to help people feel better. So why is stretching suddenly in the spotlight? Flexibility training helps increase range of motion, and this helps improve your athletic performance. Golfers, dancers, martial artists and other athletes need hyper mobility and understand the importance of this discipline. But the general population needs a range of motion for daily function. General movement patterns include touching one’s toes or stretching high for a shelf. Without basic flexibility, daily life is difficult. Stretching helps decrease muscle soreness and stiffness. But is stretching enough?
Different Kinds of Stretches
First, it’s important to understand the different kinds of stretching. Stretching can be broken down into active, passive and assisted.
Active Stretching refers to any time an opposing muscle group contracts to increase the stretch. If I want to stretch the hamstring, I may straighten the leg with the quadriceps to release the tension in the hamstring and allow for stretch.
Passive stretching refers to anytime an outside force is applied to muscles to change range of motion. When you drop your heel down off the curb to stretch your calf muscles, that is an example of passive stretching. You allow the weight of your body and gravity to increase the stretch of the muscles.
Static stretching refers to holding a stretch for a desired time period. Most static stretches are held for a minimum of 8-10 seconds and maximally 2 minutes. This is the most common form of stretching that is considered safe and effective.
Assisted & Active Stretch:
An assisted and active stretch pattern is called PNF, (Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching. This is considered the stretch, contract, stretch system. Using the joint the neuromuscular system (Golgi tendon) activation by contracting the muscle, it then allows the muscle to fully relax and thus be fully stretched. In this instance, one passively stretches the hamstring by lifting the leg. Next one would contract the hamstring against resistance held for a few seconds and immediately stretch the hamstring to allow a deeper stretch. It feels like the muscle “lets go” and allows full stretch. PNF stretching has been proven to improve active and passive range of motion.
Stretching and Strength Go Together
Research shows that stretching done before exercise should be more dynamic stretching exercises like leg swings, while post-exercise stretching should be held like a lunge stretch. Stretching is not the complete answer. Stretching helps bring circulation to the muscles to increase range of motion but it becomes temporary. In order to have continued movement, stretching and strengthening has to be part of the program. The decrease in range of motion is typically due to tight muscles. Tight muscles are weaker compared to the opposing muscles and thereby “fight” against each other to allow joint movement.
Understanding that muscle strength is part of this equation in increasing flexibility is the key component of the Flexistretcher, a fitness strap that came from the ballet world a few years ago. This ballerina’s tool is made of nylon supporting straps with an elastic center that allows for both stability, resistance training and support. A basic yoga strap will help guide you into a stretch you can injure yourself if you pull your body too far. The gentle elastic center allows for that “give” that keeps stretching in the safe zone. Resistance bands are also an option but may have too much give that could result in overstretching as well.
Other stretch tools include ways to release the connective tissues. Tendons, fascia and muscle fibers make up the connective tissue that can limit movement. For those doing high-intensity interval exercise, some experts say that 20-30 minutes of flexibility training can undo the overuse and chronic pain injuries that may come along with this type of training. Recovery products are multiplying on the store shelves. From heat and vibration, to massage and rollers, they are all helping release tight muscles and increase circulation. Click here for a 10-minute foam rolling recovery video.
Myofascial release helps bring pressure and circulation to muscles to ease tension. It is commonly used in physical therapy treatment sessions. The outer covering of the muscles, “the fascia,” gets stuck with overuse, causing scar-tissue and soft-tissue adhesions. Applying pressure helps to eliminate these. Foam rolling is one way to release the fascia. By freeing up your fascia, the body moves more freely. It’s like putting on a pair of jeans out of the dryer that restrict movement, and after a few deep squats and kicks, you’re able to move more freely. That’s somewhat of what foam rolling does for the muscles. Most people are familiar with foam rolling to ease this type of tightness, but massage products that bring vibration and circulation to the muscles are important, too.
At-home massage devices can help relieve tight muscles and are wonderful to own. Most of these electric thumpers and spinning massagers aren’t cheap. The average price point is over $200, but with the right help, it can be worth every penny. They all can be used to get a deep massage of your muscles, increase performance, and speed recovery and pain relief. The Thumper Mini Pro, Hypervolt Vibration Massage by Hyperice, Theragun Percussive Therapy, and Tim Tam Power Massage all offer a pulsating vibration. Other massage devices like the Myobuddy Pro offer a spinning surface to massage the muscles. Just keep in mind, with all these devices, you may need a “helping hand” to get to those areas where they will do the most good.
Recovery products are not limited to just equipment and flexibility training. A category of food and beverage recovery products lines supermarket shelves. And while most of us know about water and electrolyte drinks, there is more information on the benefits of food that helps with recovery. They include turmeric, curcumin, chia seeds, magnesium and supplements including Omega3’s, probiotics, CoQ10 and BCCA (branch-chain-amino-acids).
Also, as mindfulness classes and meditation grow in popularity, so does the knowledge that they can help with recovery and performance. This comes full circle to understand that relaxation, good sleep and rest are essential to good health.
Andrea is a Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutritionist and Health Expert. She’s based in Chicago and has appeared on NBC Today Show, USA Today, Oprah.com, Reuters Health Report, More.com, Better TV and local Chicago stations. You can find her at www.andreametcalf.com.