When and How To Stretch For Maximum Results

Knowing how and when to stretch properly is just as important for preventing injury as well as improving performance.

Let me start with a question. Say you have a bag of rubber bands in the refrigerator for safe keeping. Would you take one of the bands and stretch it to its maximum straight out of the cold refrigerator? What do you think might happen? Will it develop some micro tears, maybe tear completely? Not of much use now is it? So, if you wouldn’t want to do this with a rubber band, you probably wouldn’t want to do this with your un-warmed-up muscles either.

We have all heard that ballistic stretching (taking a muscle to its limit and then attempting to bounce past it) is not good and particularly not good for cold muscles. Now, new research shows that static stretching (stretching and holding) can also cause injury and damage cold muscles and connective tissue when done prior to activity. Even if you are warmed-up it is still not the best choice of stretching. When you take and hold a static position micro tears can occur which besides weakening the muscle begins the inflammatory response. Since the idea is to facilitate your athletic endeavor, the opposite is likely occurring.

So, what gives? Now I’m messin’ with your routine and all you wanted to do was go for a run or play some hoops. So, what’s a person ta do? Dynamic stretching…that’s right… controlled movement stretching. You want to warm and elongate your muscles with a series of movements that somewhat mimic the activity you will participate in. The key is to ease into the movements gradually increasing the reach and speed of motion. Once you reach maximal range of motion in a direction stop and switch to another exercise. Over stretching tired or fatigued muscles can cause shortening. Kinesthetic memory (muscle memory) will result with your muscles remembering the shortened stretch and that will become your new limit.

 Young woman doing warm-up stretch - Ultimate Health Personal Training Center Toluca Lake

A few dynamic stretches I like are jumping jacks, followed by star toe touches. Simply hold your hands over head, feet wider than shoulder width, and begin by touching the right hand toward the left foot and vice versa. With each successive repetition increase reach. Next I do 5-10 squats. Remember to keep the weight on the heels and only go as low as comfortable. Continue with swinging stretch kicks. Swing a straight leg up and forward then ease back to the ground. Repeat 10 times with increasing speed and reach. Repeat other side. For arms and shoulders simulate backstrokes and ball tosses. Finally, mimic your sports movements, gradually increasing the dynamics.

Now, that you ran your farthest, played your best and otherwise impressed the hell out of your friends…time to cool down. This is the time to do your static stretches as they will be most productive post exercise. Be sure to stretch all muscle groups involved, both upper and lower body.

Another type of stretch that is extremely effective for building flexibility is PNF stretching. Again, this should only be performed after activity and no more than every other day.  This type of stretching requires a partner or personal trainer. Let’s use a hamstring stretch as an example. Begin by lying on your back with say, your right leg straight up in the air. Have your partner slowly push your leg back toward your shoulder while you relax. Once you reach maximal range of motion have them hold this position for 15-20 seconds. At this point resist their movement by pressing against them trying to bring your leg to the ground for 10-15 seconds. Relax a few seconds and have them push you to your new limit and hold for 20 seconds, relax 10-15 more seconds then move on to the other side.  This is a safe way to get big gains in range of motion by taking advantage of kinesthetic memory. Before you know it you’ll feel faster, looser and other wise all the more spry.