The benefits of stretching may not be as familiar to us as aerobics or weight training, which we know burn calories and strengthen muscles. But as we age, our lean muscle mass declines and we become less flexible, so the rewards of stretching become more apparent.
Commonly, sports and weight training cause muscles to shorten, which can make them feel tight and sometimes sore. A sedentary lifestyle and poor posture also contribute to inflexibility that a regular stretching routine helps counteract. Flexibility allows us to exercise freely and without injury.
Stretches are designed to apply tension to the muscle and its tendon and to put joints through their full range of motion, thereby increasing suppleness and reducing the risk of repetitive sports injuries. In addition, they prepare your body pre-exercise and, during the cool-down, help decrease blood flow and lengthen tight muscles — and they have a meditative quality that promotes relaxation.
There are three different types of stretches: static, dynamic and ballistic. Dynamic stretches are slow and controlled, used in preparation for sport-specific exercise and should raise your heart rate and warm muscles and mobilise joints by gradually increasing repetitions. When stretching as part of your warm-up, concentrate on the muscles you will be using during your main workout — so if you are about to run, prepare with arm swings, hip circles, half squats and leg swings, between 10-20 repetitions.
Static stretches are considered maintenance or developmental and are best included in your cool-down as they help in lowering your core temperature and heart rate. Maintenance stretches are held for 10-20 seconds and should include all major muscle groups. Always ease gently into a static stretch, feel your muscle lengthen until you meet resistance that feels mildly uncomfortable, then stop and hold the position. Use developmental stretching for tight muscles. Gently increasing the static stretch a fraction further until you feel mild tension and hold position for further 30 seconds.
Ballistic (bouncing) stretches are best reserved for well-conditioned athletes as they are performed at speed and carry a higher risk of injury by forcing the body to extend its natural range of motion.