The Art Of Smart Stretching
Effective stretching is a vital component to living well!
When practiced regularly it enhances all types of athletic training, aids in preventing injury and promotes an ease of daily movement in our bodies that is synomous with overall health and well being.
As we age, we value our flexibility even more because we she how it is the framework for good posture and agility. More importantly, having the freedom to move without restriction gives us an independence to physically enjoy life to the fullest. Moving well is an expression of life!
One of the most important influences in my mind-body career as it pertains to effective stretching is from Aaron Mattes, the creator of ‘Active Isolated Stretching’ (AIS).
Mattes is a well-respected kinesiologist that developed an effective protocol for stretching that is respected by countless professional athletes, massage therapists trainers alike.
There has been much controversy in the fitness industry regarding the art of effective stretching. Some of the questions that typically arise are:
1. ‘Should you stretch before or after exercise?’
2. How often should I stretch?
3. ‘How long should I hold a stretch for?
4. ‘Can you actually change the length of a muscle through stretch?’
5. ‘Do heated rooms help to increase stretch?’
To answer those questions, it is best to understand the following first. I will list the answers below if you are still not sure after reading ahead.
What is flexibility?
Flexibility is the availability to move a joint through its normal range of motion and it is specific to each joint. An ample amount of flexibility is required to prevent injuries and to maintain correct postures. The primary obstacle to flexibility is the tightness of the fascia, the connective tissue, surrounding the muscle. Therefore, a desirable way to alter the range of motion is by ‘gently’ stretching the surrounding tissues.
Traditional stretching has been mostly comprised of static or ballistic stretching.
Static stretching involves holding a non-moveable position in a joint at their greatest possible length for up to 30 seconds or more. AIS studies have shown however that holding a stretch for longer than 2 seconds invokes the stretch reflex muscle to kick in. In other words, it causes the muscle to respond suddenly with a corresponding contraction, which opposes the desired stretch and aggravates the tissues.
A rhythmic or bouncing (ballistic) stretch typically uses high force and bouncy type movements that also the cause the muscle spindles to respond with a undesired contraction.
Using the two-second rule however, and some other key principles, has proven key to avoiding the opposing contraction and allowing the surrounding tissues and muscle to optimally lengthen without aggravating it.
Here are some other basic AIS principles to follow, adapted from ‘Specific Stretching for Everyone’ by Aaron L. Mattes.
Identify the muscles and supportive connective tissue to be stretched.
Isolate the muscle in the most relaxed state.
Continue gradual gentle stretch with less than 1lb of pressure toward the end range providing a controlled return back to the starting position.
The gradual gentle stretch should be held for no more than 2 seconds.
Repeat the same isolated stretch up to 10 times, increasing the gain of a few degrees of motions without eliciting a contraction of the opposing muscle.
Always return the area being stretched to the starting position before the next repetition as this ensures a continuous supple of blood, oxygen and nutrition to the tissues.
Exhale during the stretching phase and inhale for the recovery phase.
Monitor the stretch reflex as the tissue is stretched to ‘light irritation’ then release the tension to prevent the reverse contraction.
Contract the opposing muscle that you are stretching – the law of reciprocal inhibition promotes the strengthening of the opposite muscle. For instance, when you stretch the hamstrings, you must contract the quadriceps to allow the opposite side to lengthen even more.
The protocol for AIS is to stretch from the distal to the proximal end of the muscles and to stretch the fibers of the belly as well as the lateral and medial angles of the muscle.
Here are a few of my favorite AIS stretches!
Neck - Cervical Flexion
Tuck the chin as close to the neck as possible. Bring the head forward assisting the end range with the hands on the back of the head. Release and return to a neutral position.
Repeat 8-10 times.
Shoulder Abduction (Horizontal)
Stand in vertical and reach both arms forward then as far back as possible bringing the chest slightly forward so the front the collarbone opens. Start with your arms shoulder height and continue going upward approx. 15 degrees for another two sets. Repeat 8-10 times for each set.
With the torso vertical, bring the elbow to 90 degrees with the palm facing and resting on the back of the shoulder, Gently assist the stretch using the opposite hand to further reach the fingers down the back. Repeat 8-10 times on each arm.
Seated Lateral Stretch
With both knees flexed to the same side, reach the opposite arm up to the ceiling. Contract the oblique’s to flex the spine and reach the fingers to the same side as the feet. Repeat 8-10 times each side.
Single Leg Pelvic Tilt (Lower back stretch)
Lying supine, fled the working leg and pull it towards the armpit by contracting the hip flexor and abdominals. Assist by placing the hands underneath the thigh (to prevent pressure on the knee) and provide slight assistance to the end of the movement. Return the thigh to vertical and repeat 8-10 times then switch legs.
Medial Hip Stretch
Lying supine, flex one knee 90 degrees. Place the foot of the upper bent knee on top of the resting leg. Cue to stabilize the pelvis by contracting the abdominals. Apply gently assistance with the same side hand to bring the bent knee closer to toward the floor. Use the opposite hand to help keep the pelvis stable. Repeat 8-10 times on each hip.
Bent Knee Hamstring
Lying supine, flex both knees and if desired, use a theraband placed around the middle of the foot to assist the stretch of the working leg. Support the low back by engaging the abs and contract the quadriceps as you extend the knee. Move the knee closer to the chest as flexibility improves. Without the theraband, place one hand above the knee and the other below it. Repeat 8-10 times on each leg.
Kneeling with the weight bearing foot positioned forward of the knee, move the body forward onto the front leg by contracting the glutes and hamstrings, allowing the spine to slightly extend. Rest the hands on top of the non-working leg for balance and to help lift the torso as you come forward with the leg. If your balance allows you, bring the same side hand toward the ceiling to increase the stretching in the front of the hip. Repeat 8-10 times on each leg.
Hopefully the questions posed early will be easier to answer now.
Flexibility exercises before the day begins or prior to activity can greatly decrease soreness and improve performance.
Stretching should be a daily practice which helps improve or maintain quality of life. I have never seen a day go by that my dog does not stretch!
Using the 1.5 – 2 second rule over a period of 8-10 repetitions is the AIS protocol.
You can’t change the length of a muscle but you can increase the flexibility at joint thus allowing greater range of motion and better postural alignment.
A moderate temperature is desired where the body is in a comfortable state. The problem with a room that is very hot is that the body is often lead to a false sense of stretch, meaning that we can run the risk of going way beyond our range of the muscle causing ligament injuries. Extreme cold does the opposite by putting the muscle in state of tension/contraction.