Stretching is an important component of any exercise regimen, and is regularly incorporated in the warm-up and cool-down phases of most workouts in the form of passive stretching. In passive stretching, external forces (other than one's own muscles) generate movement of a joint or limb beyond its active range of motion. In the recent decades, the safety and usefulness of passive stretching has come into question, with many studies now questioning whether passive stretching actually increases the chance of injury instead of preventing it. Passive stretching has also been shown to decrease performance by dampening neuroactivation of stretched muscles, resulting in weaker, looser, and less stable muscles for up to an hour after. The greater range of motion achieved through passive stretching does not necessarily translate over to the range of motion needed in many sports or daily activities.
Muscular Balance and Flexibility
The range of motion capable by a joint is its flexibility. Being able to do impressive moves such as splits is not as important as making sure that all the muscles involved in the articulation of a joint are balanced. Muscles exert a passive tension even when not engaged in exercise, in order to maintain posture. Therefore, it is important that muscles be balanced around a joint to avoid joint discomfort, pain, or decrease in range of motion. Being flexible is not about moving joints into hyperextension, but rather being able to move the joint in all planes that are available to it.
Be active, not passive
So maintaining and improving your flexibility is vital for overall fitness, but conflicting views and newly understood risks make you unsure whether you should be doing passive stretching. Active stretching is a safer, and more effective method where muscles themselves provide the forces involved in the stretch, such as flexing the hamstring muscle to extend the quadriceps. Active stretching also promotes all muscles around that joint to work together naturally. A step beyond active stretching is dynamic stretching, which involves moving a body part, and slowing increasing the reach or movement speed, or both. Dynamic stretching prepares your muscles for exertion by immediately increasing range of motion, as well as increasing blood and oxygen flow to your tissues.
Example Dynamic Stretching
- Kicking can be a great way to warm-up your legs and hip muscles. Start with a front kick, by bringing up your leg as high and extending your leg forward. Alternate legs, starting slowly, and slowly increasing speed and intensity. Cultivate a sense of absolute control and power through all muscles involved. You should feel strength from your glutes down to your toes. Then incorporate side kicks and back kicks. Be creative and mix it up.
- Knee hugging
- While walking forward, hug your left knee into your chest, then step and repeat on the right leg, continuing with alternate legs.
- Arm Circles
- Begin by bringing your arms up to shoulder height and move them in a circle clockwise, starting slowly, and building up speed. Cultivate a sense of absolute control and power through all muscles involved. Then start creating variations, such as point your arms in different direction, and increasing the diameter of the circle.
- Start up in plank or push-up position, with legs straight and back flat. Slowly bring both legs up to hands, bending your back. Continue by moving your legs back to starting position. Repeat this.
- Cat and Cow
- This yoga posture is a helpful stretch to open up your abdominal muscles and back muscles, and accustom them to work together. Start with knees on the floor, and hands on the floor, both about shoulder or hip-width apart. Inhale, lift your sitting bone and chest towards the sky, and let your stomach fill with air and sink. On the exhale, round your spine upwards and contracting your abdominal muscles. Alternate between these two in a flowing fashion. Keep your limbs relaxed and neutral, and concentrate on keeping this movement to your torso only.