Flexibility is a very important component of physical fitness. Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and so if your muscles are stiff and rigid, the tasks will be more difficult to perform and you will be at a greater risk of injuring yourself. When you engage in any physical activity, your body needs time to recover, and stretching can help your muscles reach a peak state of rejuvenation. Stretching increases blood flow to muscles and joints.
At first, stretching may feel odd, but the more you do it, the more you will be able to get deep into it and explore the benefits that it offers.
In this short guide, we’ll give you insight into all the why’s and how’s of stretching to help you implement it in your routine. Remember, to always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program or routine.
Have you ever wondered why you can’t touch your toes? The answer is due to a tissue that is found throughout your body called Fascia. By definition, the fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds muscles, veins, and nerves. This tissue is built out of dense collagen fibers that run parallel to the direction in which the given tissue tenses. The fascia connects bodily structures and also allows them to move smoothly, and just like many other structures in the body, it can get tight. Especially during prolonged, intense workouts, it is highly likely that the muscles and their facia will get tense. That tension leads to muscle aches, stiffness, and, thus, a decreased athletic ability. For this reason, implementing recovery practices like deep tissue massages & stretching is essential to sustained long-term performance.
Types Of Stretching
In the past decades, stretching has gained a lot of traction in the fitness world, which is the reason why many gyms and fitness centers offer a wide variety of group training practices that aim to improve your flexibility, mobility, coordination, and balance. All of these physical qualities are often ignored and overshadowed by the development of strength and muscle size. Now, if you’ve acknowledged that heavy lifting requires proper recovery afterward, there are three main types of stretching you can do:
- Static stretching
- Dynamic stretching
- Ballistic stretching
All of these types of stretching are based on the same biomechanical principles, so let’s have a look at each one of them.
This first type of stretching is undoubtedly one of the better-known ones that most people practice when they stretch. Static stretching allows you to improve the muscle’s flexibility to an extent where you go beyond its current capabilities. The way to practice this type of stretching is quite simple - You start in a comfortable position and gradually apply a short stretch on the given muscle group. The gradual stretch should be well-controlled and must not lead to sharp pains, but rather, a nice, relaxing feeling of the worked musculature. If any pain is present, this is more than likely a sign of poor stretch execution or going way beyond your current flexibility. This type of stretching is not demanding and does not require any specific equipment. The only requirement is for you to focus on the execution and find the limits of the stretched muscle group.
Second to static, dynamic stretching involves controlled, dynamic motions that gradually apply more and more force to the joint and its muscles. This type of stretching also highly consists of the contraction of the opposing muscle group, which helps the one being stretched relax further. The more you contract the muscle in that position, the further your muscle will stretch. Dynamic stretching is generally safe because the extended muscle group works with its opposing one, meaning that it is far less likely to overstretch and cause injury. Dynamic stretching is used in various training disciplines, but it can be used both before and after a workout when it comes to weight training.
Last but not least, we have ballistic stretching, which involves a more dynamic, quicker movement during the stretching phase as you stretch each muscle group way beyond its current capabilities and return to the initial position. Now, unlike the first two, this type of stretching does not affect flexibility as much, but it helps the worked muscle group contract stronger. Due to this type of stretching and the risk involved, the speed/pace of each bounce/stretch should be carefully controlled to avoid injury.
Dynamic VS Ballistic Stretching
In essence, dynamic stretching requires you to stretch using coordinated movements with a predetermined range of motion. In contrast, ballistic stretching goes more towards joint movements involving more momentum and force. For this reason, static and dynamic stretching are the best options when it comes to improving flexibility, as those are reliable and safe practices.
Upper Body Stretching Exercises
Here’s a chest stretch you can easily do, with no equipment whatsoever:
- Stand against a vertical bar/pillar
- Lift your right arm up so that it forms a 90-degree angle
- Place your forearm against the bar/pillar
- Turn your body away from the bar/pillar
- When you feel a stretch in your chest, hold it for ~20 seconds
- Release slowly and repeat on the opposite side
Here’s one of the best dynamic back stretches you can use to release your back musculature:
- Use a bar or a broomstick at shoulder height
- Grab it with an overhand grip with both hands, at shoulder width
- Place your feet close to one another
- Pull back and bend over slightly
- Pause for a couple of seconds at the peak of the stretch
- Come back up to the initial position, initiating the pull with your back
Your triceps are always engaged in pushing movements in synergy with the chest and the shoulders, so if you want optimal pushing strength, do try this triceps stretch!
- Stand up straight and keep the torso in a good position (avoid hunching!)
- Lift your right arm overhead, then curl it at the elbow, so that your forearm is behind your head
- With your left arm, hold the right elbow and pull it towards the left arm
- At this point, you should feel a stretch in your triceps - Hold this for up to 15-20 seconds
- Release, then repeat on the other side
Here’s a simple stretch for the biceps to help you release any tension and bring back the mind-muscle connection:
- Stand up straight
- Lift your arms laterally until they are parallel to the ground
- Have your palms turned up so that they face the ceiling
- From this position, rotate your wrists so that the palms face the floor, then lift your fingers up (wrist extension)
- Hold the position for a couple of seconds until you get a deep stretch, then release slowly
Lower Body Stretching Exercises
Bent Over Hamstring Stretch
The bent-over hamstring stretch is an exercise most people do when it comes to flexibility. However, most people do this exercise wrong and place extra tension on their spine, which increases the risk of injury.
Here’s how you can do this to achieve the best effects possible:
- Stand up with your feet together (heel to heel)
- Keep your knees just slightly out of the lockout position
- Keep your back and spine straight, then bend over and go down slowly
- At this point, you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and calves
- When you reach the end of your currently possible range of motion, try and carefully bounce down further
- Alternatively, you can hold a static stretch position and then release slowly
If you feel like your quadriceps are tight and not well recovered from your weighted workouts, do try out this stretch.
- Stand with your back against a wall
- Curl your left leg up, flex the ankle (toes pointing forward), and place the toes on the wall
- At this point, you should feel an intense stretch in the quads
- Either hold this position or push slightly further to get a deeper stretch
Give this calf stretch a shot if your calves are feeling tight
- Stand against a step or a ledge
- Place the toes of your right leg on the edge of the step
- Bring your body forward to stretch the calves
- Hold the stretch at its peak for up to 20 seconds
- Release slowly
Safety Tips: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
- Stretching relaxes the musculature and improves its flexibility
- Static stretching must not be done BEFORE a workout
- However, you can do dynamic stretching before a workout, as it helps activate the muscles
- The stretch and tension during stretching should be well controlled and rather slow
- Do not overdo stretching - A couple of minutes per muscle group per week should suffice
- Aim for a deep feeling of stretch, avoiding any sharp pains
Static & dynamic stretching are two practices that can help you release any stiffness and keep the muscles rejuvenated and working optimally. Stretching too can be dangerous if done incorrectly, so our final advice would be to pay specific attention to each stretch and the feeling of it. Activate the muscles before a workout. Help them relax after the workout by stretching.
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