Stretching Safely

Nicholas J. Perri MA, NASM-PES

Are you stretching safely? Unfortunately most people do not stretch safely. In fact, most people stretch in a way that is more injurious than if they didn’t stretch at all. Here are a few important facts on stretching.

For starters, it is not necessary or even advantageous to make stretching the first phase of your workout. In fact, it may lead to injury or decreased performance in sport or exercise. The first phase of your workout should involve warming-up. And by warming-up I mean to literally increase your core body temperature. This can be achieved with about five minutes of moderate activity such as jumping rope, walking, jogging, biking etc. Basically any form of aerobic or cardiovascular activity will be sufficient to increase blood flow and your core temperature. Increased blood flow to the muscles will improve flexibility and muscle performance. Stretching without a warm-up is referred to as a “cold” stretch, which may cause tears in muscle fibers and connective tissues.

Another important fact about stretching is that it may not even be necessary for most fitness related activities such as biking, jogging, rowing or using an elliptical. Stretching is more beneficial to the athlete prior to participating in a sporting event and after a general warm-up. It will improve muscle performance through increased flexibility at a joint and help prevent injuries. Injuries that may otherwise be caused by movement patterns that require quick stops, quick bursts of speed and/or power production. In other words, sports that require a great deal of agility require proper stretching techniques for increased performance. However, going out for a three-mile run or spending 30 minutes on the bike may not require stretching because the potential for injury due to sport-specific movement patterns does not exist. Be advised to let the muscles warm-up gradually during your cardiovascular workout. As you increase blood flow and your core body temperature, muscle flexibility and performance will increase proportionately.

The best time for the general fitness enthusiast to stretch would be immediately after your cardiovascular workout. Blood flow to the muscles will be at its peak, which means increased potential for improving flexibility. Hold your stretches for about 20-30 seconds and you may repeat 3-5 times. You may have slight discomfort during your stretch, but do not overstretch or stretch to the point of feeling pain. Static stretches should be performed in a slow and controlled manner. Hold the stretch but do not hold you breath.

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