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.