101 Reasons to Stretch
. . (okay maybe twelve)
More than 40% of our body mass is skeletal muscle, the muscle type that is under our conscious control and that is responsible for body movement. Fortunately, muscle is prone to very few diseases, but it is prone to dysfunction. Dysfunction is very common, but readily preventable, largely through a regular, cautious stretching regime. Proper stretching, along with other measures will help to prevent body aches and stiffness. Stretching also reduces headaches and many other common body complaints such as stiff necks and sore backs. Stretching also balances our muscle tone, increases circulation and breaks up internal body adhesions (scar tissue). It also increases range of motion in our joints, increases our body awareness and our conscious control over muscle tension.
Notice the use of the word cautious, because if you are going to stretch wrong, or forcefully, then you might just as well ease back into that Lazyboy chair, before you hurt yourself. Better yet stay in that chair, and read this article before you begin to stretch.
There are three basic types of stretches; the wake-up stretch, the limbering stretch, and the developmental stretch. They all have slightly different effects, and they all have their time and place.
The Wake-Up Stretch. It would best be described as our body’s instinctive desire for movement. This is something that we all do, and that we see animals do after a nap. It is a short duration stretch, which instinctively occurs after periods of inactivity. It serves to wake up the body and the mind, limbers us up slightly, and increases circulation. Humans evolved as hunter/gatherers, so our bodies are designed for movement. Unfortunately most modern jobs involve static posture, which stagnates circulation, and greatly increases our risk of developing Cumulative Trauma Disorder (aka Repetitive Strain Injury). It is a good idea for most of us to use the wake-up stretch on the job, several times each hour, to minimize the negative effects of standing or sitting still for too long. It is especially important to use this stretch on our arms and hands.
The Limbering Stretch. This is your garden variety, daily stretch. You do this stretch when your muscles are already warm (not in bed as you wake up). Hold this stretch for at least five breaths, going to a point of mild tension only. Focussing on your breathing keeps you relaxed, grounded, and will give you an ability to time your stretch without needing a watch. This type of stretch should be used on all muscle groups of our body, on a daily basis. This stretch is best done after rather than before a workout. During repetitive exercise, muscles tend to shorten. Post-event stretching returns muscle to its normal length, leaving you with balanced posture and moderate flexibility.
The Developmental Stretch. This is the granddaddy of all the stretches. This stretch is employed in areas where you are chronically tight. Hold the stretch for at least 10 breaths. Again, move only to a point of mild tension. Gains are made over time, not by forcing the structures involved. If you force any stretch, or bounce, you will only end up hurting yourself. This type of stretch can work out muscle knots, break up post-injury scar tissue, loosen up tight areas, and is used to move the body toward a healthier posture. One of the goals of this stretch is to increase your flexibility, as opposed to simply maintaining flexibility.
Note: Studies of high-level athletes showed that those who employed developmental stretches on a daily basis did not perform as well as those who did it every 3rd day. The implication is that a small amount of muscle damage is done, and that it takes time for the body to effect repairs, so caution is advised in the area of frequency of this stretch. For this same reason, a muscle that has been developmentally stretched needs a short rest period. Do not use this stretch before activity.
- Never stretch a cold structure
- Breathe . . . and hold stretch for five breaths
- (ten breaths for developmental stretches)
- Do not bounce
- Do not stretch into pain
- Do not rush, . . . visualize the muscle relaxing
- Any stretch should be slow & sustained
- Don’t immediately work a developmentally stretched muscle
- Stretch a tight (target) muscle first, then its antagonist, and then stretch the target muscle again.
When to Stretch
- During periods of sustained static posture (wake-up stretches)
- Daily (limbering stretches)
- Maximum of two to three times per week for developmental stretches
- After activity (to reestablish proper muscle length)
- During mid to late stage post-injury rehabilitation
There are plenty of stretching programs on TV and n most communities. If you are looking for an inexpensive stretching book written in laymen’s terms with individual stretches for specific activities or jobs, check out Stretching by Bob Anderson (Shelter Publications) available through Amazon.
There are also tons of websites with great advice. Here is one – Stretching Exercises Guide.