Among the many methods taught and applied in sport training today, one of the most crucial is the importance of stretching. Stretching has been used for decades among elite and pro athletes; and in the last 10 years stretching is increasingly being used by everyday people and workout enthusiasts to promote better muscular health and to help avoid injury. The word stretching, English in origin, is used as such in many other languages and it comes from the verb to stretch (meaning, in this sense, ‘to make your arms, legs and body as straight as possible so that your muscles become long and tight). More exactly, we talk about stretching the muscles, the joints, the tendons, the ligaments.
Even before the term itself and the specific methods gained individuality, stretching was used a lot, especially in sports or activities which require a very good mobility of the joints and special muscle suppleness (gymnastics, martial arts, ballet, etc.). The positions specific to Hatha yoga were a source of inspiration for the different movements practiced in stretching, but these positions underwent many transformations, adaptations and simplifications.
The most important effect of stretching is suppleness of muscles and joints, which enables increased effectiveness during the training. There are different opinions about the exact time when stretching should be introduced in the training program. Thus, there are authors who support the idea that stretching is indicated for both warming up and relaxation, and even for the main part of the training. Pilates is a workout training program that is just stretching. It takes some of the yoga positions and adds to them a bit so as to train the muscles and ligaments while stretching them.
On the other hand, there is the opinion that stretching must be done only in the relaxation phase, because the movements that are specific to it induce a state of relaxation that you do not want at the beginning of the training. This state comes as a result of maintaining the passive phase of the positions. There is also the opinion that stretching upon waking is a good way to improve muscle and ligament health, and increase blood flow while increasing energy for the day ahead. Either way, stretching in the morning definitely won’t hurt, and being able to relax upon waking can set the tone for the whole day.
Regardless, everyone agrees that stretching needs to be preceded by general warming up, this way the practitioner will avoid tightening of the muscles which can cause injury. General warming up takes about 5 minutes and it contains aerobic exercises. Stretching muscles that have not been warmed up might be dangerous for the integrity of the muscle fibers, which could rupture easily. Warming up with a 5 minutes of simple aerobic exercises like jumping jacks or a light jog causes more blood to flow to the muscles which helps to stretch without risking injury.
When it comes to your actual workouts, stretching is a must. Both weight and resistance training should include stretching; the effectiveness of your training will only increase once this type of movement is done during training. However, you cannot achieve whole body training only with stretching exercises. This is not advisable: the muscles will quickly get used to only relaxed stretching without contracting, which can produce a certain imbalance and thus make injury more likely.
A possible negative effect of exaggerated stretching movements (over the physiological limit of a joint) is laxity of the joints or even accidents like sprains, dislocations, tightening of ligaments or tendons, and pulled or torn muscles. The main joints (knee, shoulder, elbow, etc.) are protected not only by their own mobility, but also by tendons and the elasticity of the muscles which surround them. In conclusion, stretching must be accompanied by other forms of training so that the athlete will have a complete and secure fitness program. For the average person stretching only has benefits to improve muscle and joint health while improving daily life due to stress and/or lack of exercise.
If you have any medical issues or are unsure, please talk to a doctor before starting any new workout routine.
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