Muscle “tightness” is a common problem which affects many people. Regardless of its cause, it can reduce joint range of motion overtime which may indirectly affect physical performance or increase the risk of injury. Stretching is a well-known intervention, frequently used by athletes or people involved in rehabilitation or fitness programs, which is used to reduce and/or prevent muscles from becoming tight. Despite the fact many of us engage in regular exercise, we often do forget to include stretching either before or after physical activity.
Muscle tension occurs by two main mechanisms:
Passive Mechanisms – such as prolonged postures or scar tissue
Active Mechanisms – muscle spasm or contractions, such as vigorous exercise
The above mechanisms shorten our muscles overtime and generate tension, which in turn restricts our range of movement and creates muscle imbalances. We must take the time to balance our muscle strength with our muscle length which can be achieved through regular stretching. This is not something that happens overnight – we need to be both patient and persistent when it comes to stretching in order to see changes in our flexibility.
There are many different types of stretching and it is important to engage in the form most specific and appropriate to what you wish to achieve.
Static Stretching – Undoubtably the most common form of stretching. It involves moving a muscle (or limb) into a lengthened position and holding it there for a length of time. This may be anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds.
Dynamic Stretching – Involves moving the leg or arm through its full range of motion in a controlled manor, repeatedly. This is active form of stretching is great as part of a warm-up prior to sport or vigorous physical activity.
PNF Stretching – PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and is a technique combining passive stretching with isometric muscle contractions. A muscle (or limb) is passively moved into a stretched position, then actively contracts against a resistance for 10 seconds, before being passively stretched further into range again. PNF stretching has shown to be very effective in increasing flexibility and joint range of motion.
Ballistic Stretching – Also known as ‘bounce’ stretching, involves forcing a limb beyond its normal range of motion by rapidly bouncing in and out of extremely lengthened positions. Due to a higher risk of injury, this form of stretching is generally not recommended (except in specific sports that require extreme, forceful end-range movements, such as elite ballet dancing).
Stretching has many benefits, including increased flexibility and joint range of motion, which in turn may improve physical performance and reduce the risk of injury. It also helps to improve posture and may reduce post-exercise muscle soreness (DOMS) by promoting blood circulation. Stretching is important for all of us regardless of our activity levels. Be sure to check-in with your Physiotherapist to put you on the right track for stretching!