Hey Angels and Alphas,
Whether you’re going to the gym for an intense HIIT session or to put as much weight as you can on the bar, we all know that’s not how your workout starts. I hope.
Before you start doing anything else, you perform some sort of warm-up routine to get your muscles ready and prepared for what’s about to hit them. Most of the time, that warm-up routine includes stretches or light cardio.
Today, I want to talk about those first (or last) 5-10-15 minutes of your workout that few people talk about in detail, yet they are crucial to muscle growth and recovery.
All the stretching you do either before your workout or after it is going to set the scene for your muscle’s performance and repair. This means that learning how to adjust your stretching to your specific goal can benefit not only your workout, but also everything that happens after it.
Add that to the fact that stretching can quickly turn into a relaxing habit, and you’ve got all the right reasons to learn and master the art of stretching.
First of all, what is stretching, and how does it help us?
Stretching can be defined as any means of deliberately flexing or stretching a muscle or tendon in order to get it to gradually lengthen, relax, and allow its full range of unencumbered movement.
There are thousands upon thousands of different stretching routines out there, and most sports even have their own trademark stretches. Still, when most people hear stretching, they imagine the classic static stretch that involves holding a muscle in a stretched position for up to a minute.
That’s definitely not doing stretching any justice, and it can even be harmful.
There are a couple of joints you have to warm-up before you perform any kind of activity, and they include the neck, shoulders, the trunk, the elbows, wrists, and fingers, as well as the hips, knees, ankles, feet, and toes.
This might seem like a lot of work, especially considering that you’re holding them each in a stretched position for up to a minute. That’s just one more reason why static stretching isn’t going to be enough to get you warmed up and prevent you from injury.
Overall, the benefits of stretching include:
- Higher flexibility
- Improved posture
- Increased blood flow to muscles
- Increased range of motion
- Stress relief
But these cannot be achieved by static stretching alone. To achieve them, you need a stretching routine that combines and utilizes different types of stretching.
Let’s break down the 3 types of stretching so you can get a better idea of where your current routine might be lacking.
(There are actually around 7 types of stretching. But most are just combinations of the main three, and others are even harmful. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve brought it down to 3 main ones).
Static stretching is the usual go-to for everyone the first time they step in a gym or on a running track. It’s a basic form of stretching in which you hold a position for about 30-60 seconds, after which you release and repeat.
The goal here is to lengthen the muscles and the connective tissues – the fascia. However, recent studies have concluded that this isn’t an effective method for pre-workout stretching. And it’s definitely not a way to increase workout performance.
Using a static stretching program before your training session may result in inhibiting muscle performance. This is thought to be because static stretches release muscle tension and increase the length between resting muscle fibers.
When this healthy relationship between length and tension is altered, this results in lower muscle excitability. This, on its own, directly inhibits proper muscle function.
If we overstretch our muscles, we reduce their elasticity, directly lowering performance.
Personally, I believe static stretching is useful only after you’ve finished your workout – when the body is still warm, and the tendons could use some stress-relief.
Examples of static stretches: the posterior capsule stretch, the hamstring stretch, the quad stretch, and the long lunge.
Active Isolated Stretching
AIS is a stretching method that’s been around for 30 years. It was first introduced in a book called; you guessed it, “Active Isolated Stretching,” by Kinesiotherapist and Licensed Massage Therapist Aaron L. Mattes. He created it to help amateur and professional athletes develop more agility at a lower risk of injury.
Here’s the basic premise.
You isolate the muscle you want to stretch, you repeat your stretch around 10 times, and you hold your stretches for no more than 2 seconds. Simple, beautiful, and useful.
Some of you might be wondering how you isolate a muscle to stretch it. If you want to stretch your hamstrings, you contract the quadriceps. When you flex your quads, your brain sends a signal to your hamstrings to relax, helping you stretch them more effectively.
In other words, you stretch the muscles by actively contracting the muscle opposite to them.
You repeat each stretch around 10 times to get more blood, oxygen, and nutrients going into the muscles. If you hold your stretches for more than 2 seconds, you activate your body’s stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex). It’s the reflex that prevents the body from overstretching – the body’s shield against tears and sprains.
This way of holding short-term stretches has been proven to grant the highest flexibility gains per session. It’s most often performed with a rubber band to assist movement.
However, just like static stretching, it’s not that effective when it comes to your pre-workout warm-up.
It should be done in separate flexibility sessions or just after your training.
Dynamic stretching is another form of active stretching, and it’s perfect for a warm-up. It’s performed by engaging the desired muscle’s opposing tendon through the joint range of motion. It’s also held for 2-3 seconds max.
And because it’s held for such a brief period, it stretches the muscle without reducing muscle tension or excitability. This allows you to improve your range of motion and get the tissues ready for exercise without sacrificing force production.
Dynamic stretching is also related to more sport-specific movements, although it shouldn’t be confused with simple warm-up drills.
Warm-ups that incorporate dynamic stretching exercises often include staples like the side shuffles, walking lunges, hip openers, torso twists, leg swings, and more.
The goal here is to improve the muscle’s movement, speed, and even reach.
Dynamic stretching should not be confused with Ballistic Stretching, a dangerous alternative that suggests going way beyond the desired range of motion.
There are no bouncing movements, just dynamic, controlled back and forth motions.
The rep range here is around 8-12.
Now you know all the main types of stretching, but one question still remains – when should you stretch?
Stretching before a workout helps your muscles, joints, and connective tissues get ready for more intense loads and gives you better range of motion. It also increases your core temperature, making it easier for your muscles to perform at a higher intensity.
The key here is to use dynamic stretching if you’re warming up. Since you’re preparing your body for dynamic movements, it only makes sense that you would do dynamic movements. This way, you can continuously prepare your body for more intense ones.
Dynamic stretching before a workout is a must. It not only prepares your muscles, but tells your nervous system that it’s time to get moving. This, in its own right, boosts your heart rate and improves your coordination and awareness. Not to mention, it helps you shield your muscles and joints from injuries.
Once you’ve already gone through the highest intensity for the day, stretching becomes a great way to relax.
Post-workout stretching is different than pre-workout stretching because it focuses on easing stress and lengthening your muscles. That’s why it’s always better to perform static stretches rather than dynamic ones.
When it comes to post-workout stretching, your choices are either static or active isolated stretches. With them, you’ll be able to focus on specific muscle groups that need relaxing, for example, the hip flexors and hamstrings.
If there are any areas of your body in which you feel tight after you work out, a cool-down stretching routine is a must. You don’t need anything drastic, just 5-10 minutes of stretches to help ease tension off the tendons.
Sometimes, finding the time for both a nice warm-up and a long workout can be difficult.
But neglecting your stretching will, without a doubt, put you at higher risk of injury, lower your performance, and may even lead to imbalances.
Developing a stretching routine and performing it at the right time of your workout goes a long way to helping you reduce those risks.
Not only that, but you’ll reap all the benefits of higher range of motion and joint mobility, better flexibility, and mental relaxation.
For more specific cases that involve rehabilitation from injury, I suggest checking in with your doctor on what types of stretches are best for you.
Other than that, I suggest you stretch away!
Until next time,