Fitness Fundamentals: Stretching 101

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Stretching has been touted as the cure to nearly everything. But is it really that important? Unfortunately, the jury is still out. The one thing we do know is stretching makes you FEEL good! Here’s the low-down on stretching!

Stretching is important for maintaining range of motion and supporting the integrity of your joints. The best part of stretching is it’s simplicity and requires very little, if any, equipment.

The Benefits of Stretching

  • Increased flexibility with reduced muscle soreness
  • Increased range of movement in the joints
  • Increased blood circulation
  • Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
  • Increased mood and reduced stress

For the best results, however, you may need to throw your old stretching routine out the window. Here’s the run down on the four types of stretches:

1. Assisted (Passive)

Assisted passive stretches are ones that require outside assistance such as gravity, straps, body weight, a partner, or a machine. You rely on the outside force to hold you in place to feel the stretch and relax the muscle.

Assisted stretches are extremely comfortable and you don’t typically have to work all that hard to achieve the stretch. The downside is that the external force MIGHT be stronger than you are flexible.

Example: The lying hamstring stretch. Lie flat on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Pull one knee into your chest and then, holding either behind the calf or the hamstring (not the knee), extend the leg up towards the ceiling. You will feel a stretch along the backside of the leg. Your arms are creating the assistance in this stretch.

2. Unassisted (Active)

Unassisted active stretches require NO outside assistance. You must contract a muscle to stretch the opposing muscle in an unassisted stretch.

This type of stretching is far less common because of the effort it requires. You must rely on your strength to produce a stretch of the opposing muscle group, which helps protect your joints.

It’s considered very helpful for improving everyday movements and your posture, in particular.

Example: Set up the hamstring stretch the same way it is listed above but, instead of grasping the leg at the calf or the hamstring, contract the front side of your thigh muscle (the quadriceps) and lift your leg up towards the ceiling for a stretch in the hamstring. Try to avoid compressing the spine into the floor or lifting the tailbone off the floor. The strength of your quadriceps is creating the stretch for the hamstring.

3. Static

Static stretches are ones that are held for a longer period of time (anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds will deliver great results) and they can be assisted or unassisted.

Example: Move into the hamstring stretch as described (either assisted or unassisted) and hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds. Release and repeat.

4. Dynamic

Dynamic stretches are stretches in motion. Both unassisted and assisted stretches can be dynamic. These stretches should be controlled; no bouncing. Moving through the stretch 10-12 times will produce the best results. Recently, research has uncovered that dynamic stretching is linked to improved sport performance and enhanced mobility.

Example: A dynamic stretch could begin with the hamstring stretch. However, instead of holding the stretch, you would move the leg up and down in a controlled, smooth manner.

A Few Things to Remember

All four types of stretches are equally useful but they have their place in your workout regimen. Recent studies have uncovered the order and frequency by which you utilize these stretches can possibly impact your everyday movement and/or sport performance.

Stretching, although it has many benefits, is actually quite stressful on the muscles and joints because the act of stretching actually causes microscopic damage to the soft tissue. The soft tissue eventually repairs itself which can lead to greater mobility. Once stretched, the muscle is stressed out so the muscle has a harder time producing power for an activity.

A good rule of thumb: Use dynamic, active stretches prior to activity to prepare the body for the workout. Then, to increase flexibility post-workout, add your static, both active and passive, stretches.

Happy stretching!

What is your favorite pre or post-workout stretch?

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

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Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is the founder of SFR, a consulting firm for aspiring fitness educators, manufacturers and managers, as well as the owner of Balletone® and GroupEx Pro®. Shannon is a 17 year fitness veteran, freelance writer, as well as an international presenter for Schwinn®, BOSU and ACE. She is a member of the ACE Board of Directors, has helped author portions of the ACE and ACSM Group Fitness manuals, and has starred in over 25 fitness videos. Shannon is a certified Book Yourself Solid® Business Coach interested in helping fitness professionals navigate the industry and find their place. She's busy improving the self-esteem of the world as the Director of Exercise Programming for the Anytime Fitness Franchise.

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