Stretching: For Longer or to Get Stronger?
There is lots of conflicting advice around for stretching whether it is performed before or after exercise, or if stretches are static (holding a position), dynamic (through a comfy range of movement), passive (using something external to stretch like a band) or active (stretching a muscle by contracting its opposite muscle).
So what is best?
Like the varied diet advice around, the general consensus comes back to everything in moderation. Being able to move your body in all planes of movement (forwards, sideways, backwards and with some rotation), through the range your joints and muscles allow, is ideal.
Doing this when you are a little warmer allows your muscles to prep for additional loading or stretching with less of a shock to the system. (We’ve all been there doing a high kick on a night out and regretted the hamstring strain that followed…!)
I have to do the splits or fold myself in half?
No, not unless you actually can! Your flexibility levels are placed somewhere on a rather broad scale of normal. You may have seen people struggle to touch their knees let alone their toes, whilst there are those who contort and bend at angles most people’s eye balls struggle to compute. These bendy people are likely to be hypermobile and have an ability to perform some sort of party trick with one or more joint.
So should I be stretching or strengthening?
A little bit of both will keep you balanced. Even if you are only a little hypermobile then focussing on something like Pilates that involves movement through range but with resistance and maintaining stability through the trunk, will strengthen muscles that support more mobile joints.
If you feel more stiff, then Yoga (depending on the type) tends to flow through functional movement sequences and encourage stretching with breathing at your personal limits of range, and it is this, that over time will allow connective tissue to lengthen and release.
So no static calf stretches against the wall?
Not strictly speaking. Localised stretches will help release a feeling of tightness in a muscle and holding for around 30 sec gives enough time for the fibres to relax a little more. Monitor how your body feels and stretch accordingly – being aware of how you feel after your exercise/activities will help you judge what sort of stretching your muscles will appreciate!
Should there be pain involved?
Not exactly… Your muscles have a lot of receptors that monitor different things such as heat, chemical changes and the amount of stretch. Once you take a muscle past the point your brain perceives to be its ‘normal happy range’ the brain can respond by firing off pain signals to protect said muscle, possibly resulting in spasm or some microtears in the muscle.
A comfortable stretch but no sharp pain is what you are aiming for and certainly no pain that lasts to the next day = reign in the range next time if that happens and listen to your body!
So in summary
- Stretching is an important activity that either maintains your current range of movement or allows you to gently increase it.
- Pilates and yoga both offer functional movements to stretch the body in all ranges so you don’t get muscle imbalances (this is another topic!).
- If you want a little more strengthening try adding some pilates = but make sure you have good technique as shown in the exercises
- For a little more flexibility and control, try some yoga.
- If you are sitting for more than 30 mins, get up and move!!
This blog was written by Anna Clayton: Anna works at Bury Physiotherapy Clinic as a Senior Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist and has recently completed a MSc in Advanced Physiotherapy. She teaches regular Pilates classes including a Pink Pilates; specifically for breast cancer patients. At the clinic she offers patients acupuncture alongside other treatment techniques to help people back to normal day to day activities, sports and hobbies - she is all for functional movement! Anna enjoys keeping fit and active with regular running (the odd half or full marathon), occasional cycling and was a rower and heptathlete in her youth.