Stretching is one of those really underrated areas of exercise and fitness that everyone knows they should do more of, but never find the time. It is daft really because most of the injuries we have, the stiffness we complain about, and the hindrances to progress we have to overcome would likely be gone if we just found the time to stretch more. Stretch is held at 8pm on Tuesdays at Vertical Fitness by the lovely Heather Pepper and Vikki Laker.
So you don’t really have an excuse…!
Now that the reason we never find the time to stretch is out in the open, and let’s face it instructors are notoriously bad for this one as well, we can get on with tweaking our lifestyle to do what we all know we need to do! In case you are in any doubt or grossly underestimate the benefits of stretching here they are in black and white:
· Helps you to relax, unwind and destress
· Prevents injury
· Enhances better posture (prevents lower back issues, rounded shoulders and sciatica)
· Increases the range of motions in joints
· Increases blood supply and nutrient delivery
· Reduces levels of stiffness and soreness caused by everyday activities and exercise
· Increases the length of muscle tendons
There are different kinds of stretching that you can do. You will already be familiar with maintenance stretching although you may not know it. These are the static stretches performed at the end of exercise classes and they simply restore your muscles to the level of flexibility that you came to the class with. Exercise contracts the muscles, working them hard and bunching up those muscle fibres while stretching relaxes and elongates them again. Maintenance stretching is enough to maintain equilibrium but if you want to progress your flexibility and also remedy the impact of workplace activities on your posture and range of motion, then you need to look at three other types of stretching. This is what Yoga, Pilates and stretching classes utilise to deliver all of the benefits listed above.
When you spend all day at in front of a computer you are contracting the muscles in the spine, and if you sit hunched forward then you are also contracting and working the muscles in your shoulders and neck. It is a strange concept but by sitting for prolonged periods of time you are putting pressure on weaker areas of the natural curve of the spine which leads to very common issues, particularly lower back pain. This then prohibits exercising those areas as it becomes painful and unfortunately that means they cannot be strengthened and so the issue grows. If you stretch out the stiff muscles then your muscle groups can work together in harmony and reduce the effect of those long hours sat in a less than beneficial working position.
The stretches that can give you the most relief and are what stretch classes, like the one Tuesday 8pm (shameless plug), focus on. They are dynamic, developmental (everyone’s favourite), and PNF stretching.
This is a mobile stretch, which means it is not stationary, you move gradually through the range of motion of the muscle increasing flexibility and decreasing the stiffness and tension everyday activities create. Dynamic is a long way from ballistic stretching which is not advised and involved short bouncing movements to force the muscle into a more stretched state. Dynamic involves a gentle swing, reach or torso twist.
As I said, stretching after a training session takes the muscles back to their original length. Post workout stretches that include developmental increase flexibility and mobility. Developmental stretches are held for a period of 30 seconds, which the stretch first held when you feel the muscle ‘stretching’ and once the muscle relaxes slightly 6-10 seconds later, the stretch is then increased further and held for an additional 10 seconds. Repeat that one more time for a total of 30 seconds.
And an inner thigh stretch:
However, developmental stretching is really possible across all of the major muscle groups whether that be the shoulders, quads, glutes, back, or arms. The stretches that you are familiar with are the best place to start. Just apply the developmental stretching process to them and you will soon notice the changes in your everyday life.
I cannot stress enough the importance of stretching in freeing your body up to try new exercises, reducing the chance of injury and ultimately making you ache less and achieve more. My shoulders have been abused with my boxing and weights routines and this has caused certain limitations to what I can now do. Intensive stretching and a change of routine are slowly correcting the posture issues and restrictions in movement I have built up over years of intensive training. If you start doing developmental stretching today, a year from now you will notice all kinds of changes:
· Fewer tension headaches
· Smashing more advanced stretches
· Fewer injuries
· A more aligned posture
· Greater range of motion across the board
If you have a particular goal in mind then make sure you do not neglect other areas while you push on, the last thing you want to create are imbalances. Here is a good set of stretches for those wanting to achieve the splits:
This is not as easy to work into your daily routine simple because it involves a training partner or a band for assistance. It is certainly seen as a superior form of stretching though and can make gains achievable over a short space of time.
Most PNF stretching techniques employ isometric agonist contraction/relaxation where the stretched muscles are contracted isometrically and then relaxed. Some PNF techniques also employ isometric antagonist contraction where the antagonists of the stretched muscles are contracted. In all cases, it is important to note that the stretched muscle should be rested (and relaxed) for at least 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique.
The examples below use the Hamstring stretch to explain how to carry out PNF stretches. Borrowed from a great piece on PNF stretching by the University of Sussex found here.
Isometric (Hold-Relax)Lying with on your back, with one leg straight out and the other straight up in the air, move your airborne leg to a point of resistance (displaying mild discomfort) and hold for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds push our leg into your partners hand/against a resistance band. Your partner/the band should resist this force, so the leg remains static in an isometric contraction. Hold for 6 seconds, and then relax and increase the stretch, again to a point of mild discomfort. Repeat the process several times. The range of movement should be increased due to autogenic inhibition activated in the hamstrings.
Lying with your back on the floor, with one leg straight out and the other straight up in the air, move your airborne leg to a point of resistance (displaying mild discomfort) and hold for 10 seconds. Then push your leg against a resistance, partners hand/stretch strap, the force against your leg should be enough so your foot slowly lowers to the floor (full range of movement). Upon reaching the full range of movement relax, at which point you increase the stretch and repeat a couple of times.
General guidelines when performing PNF stretching include:
2. Perform only one exercise per muscle group in a session
3. For each muscle group complete 2-5 sets of the chosen exercise.
4. Each set should consist of one stretch held for up to 30 seconds after the contracting phase.
5. Warm up before stretching with 5-10 minutes of light aerobic exercise, followed by some dynamic stretching
Here are three stretches to get you started:
So be safe, of course, but also make sure you incorporate more stretching into your exercise regime – you will be so much better off for it in the long run!