INTRODUCTION TO STRETCHING
What is stretching?
Your body has muscles covering almost every part of itself. These muscles help you to run, jump, sing, blink your eyes, and even breathe. There are voluntary muscles as well as involuntary. Voluntary muscles are under your conscious control. Every time you reach for a glass of water you are using voluntary muscles in your arm. There are also involuntary muscles that you don’t have direct control over. The heart is an involuntary muscle that is crucial to human life but can not be consciously controlled. When using the power of stretching to relieve stress the primary focus will be on voluntary muscles groups. These include muscles in the neck, arms, chest, back and legs, among others.
Within these muscles there are muscle fibers. These fibers are used to contract every time you want to use them. Visualize for a moment a rubber band. When you stretch a rubber band the rubber gets pulled apart. When you let go of the rubber band the rubber pulls together. Similar to a rubber band, when the muscle fiber contracts the muscle gets shorter. For instance, say you want to raise a glass of water from the table up to your lips. You grasp the glass of water and use your bicep muscle to bring the glass up to your lips. The entire time, the fibers in your bicep are contracting in order to control the movement of the arm and bring the glass up so you can drink the water. Now, pretend there is a heavy weight resting on the table instead of a glass of water. You also want to raise the weight up to your lips. You grasp the weight with your hand and raise the weight. Because the weight is much heavier than the glass of water your bicep muscle recruits more muscle fibers to bring it up. Your arm is going through the same motion but since the weight is heavier more fibers are used to do the same motion. This is an important distinction to make when understanding the value of stretching to relieve stress. Remember that when you are stressed your body physiologically reacts just like it would in a life-or-death situation. It speeds your heart beat, quickens your breathing as well as tightens your muscles. The reason is because it is preparing itself to fight or flee (fight-or-flight response). So when you are stressed, muscles throughout your entire body are tightening up. This is happening inside the fibers. And if you are stressed for long periods of time these fibers never relax. The result is that they begin to bind up causing pain. In understanding this key concept, you now have one of the most powerful weapons in battling stress. If our muscles are tightening or shortening during a stressful situation, you now may counteract the tightening by relaxing and stretching the muscle.
Types of Stretching:
There are many different types of stretching that will be used in this stress relief program. The first type of stretch is called a static stretch. Static stretches are done slowly and must be held for at least 30 seconds. There are two types of static stretches; active and passive. Active stretching is when you perform the stretch. Passive stretching involves a partner helping you through a stretch and can be a very effective way of developing flexibility. However, there must be good communication between both people by letting your partner know when you feel the slightest amount of pain. Good communication leads to a decrease in the chance of injury.
The next type of stretching is called Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves movement and lengthening of the muscle through a full range of motion. A good example of dynamic stretching in sports is swimming. In the water a swimmer will bring their shoulders through a full range of motion creating a good stretch and incredible flexibility in the joint. The joint is getting a fuller range of motion than the typical activities of daily life thereby lengthening the muscles. The fact that it is stretching while moving through many different planes-of-motion makes the stretch “dynamic”.
Another type of dynamic stretching is oscillatory stretching. The benefits of oscillatory stretching are tremendous and can be done with all major joints of the body. Oscillatory stretching is a back-and-forth motion of the joint through a full range of motion. For example, picture strumming the strings on a guitar with your right hand. The muscles that attach at your elbow are getting an “oscillatory” stretch because they are moving in a back-and-forth motion.
Active Isolated Stretching
The next type of stretching is called Active Isolated stretching. Active Isolated stretching involves having a muscle contract against some form of resistance. This type of stretch is typically done with a partner. Say you were stretching the chest muscle. You would lay on a massage table and press your arm against your partner’s arm. Next, you relax the muscle and have your partner bring it slightly past it’s full range of motion into a stretched state. Your partner then holds it there for no longer than two seconds, then brings it back to the starting point. It is very important to not hold the stretch for longer than two seconds otherwise the muscle will contract trying to protect itself from being over-stretched. This type of stretching is one of the most effective ways for developing great flexibility as well as getting rid of the fibrous tissue in the muscle. However, it is typically more of an advanced type of stretch.
The last type of stretch is the Ballistic stretch. Many people perform this type of stretch incorrectly. It is normally defined as quickly bouncing in and out of a stretched state. This way of stretching will almost surely tear a muscle or put it into spasm. However, the correct way to do a ballistic stretch is to slowly come to a stretched state, relax, then purposely and slowly oscillate back and forth. It is essential that it be done in a slow and relaxed manner. With the right intent, this can be a very effective way to stretch. The oscillation or back and forth motion is supposed to be done slowly. The way it differs from the dynamic oscillatory stretch is that the oscillation in the ballistic stretch is done in a very small range of motion at the point where the muscle is fully stretched. The oscillatory stretch uses a full range of motion.
When should I stretch?
There are two answers to this question. The first answer is whenever you feel like it. Truly, stretching is a “feeling” activity so you must stay aware of what your body is telling you. If you have been at your computer too long and feel tension in your neck spend 3-5 minutes going through a few neck stretches and work on loosening up the muscles. Just as importantly however is the element of developing a regular stretching practice. Your daily habits determine your future health. This is why developing a regular stretching program will dramatically improve how you manage stress. By creating the daily habit of teaching yourself to stay relaxed, stretch and breathe properly, it will be difficult for you to get caught up in stress. When we forget to practice daily healthy habits however, we become more susceptible to the damaging effects of stress. One of the most effective techniques used to help people remember to do their stretches is called the “Trigger Technique”. This technique will be explained in depth later.
Who should stretch?
Everyone should be stretching on a daily basis. Stretching is one of the most effective ways of managing stress and a regular stretching program can be benefited by all.
How long should I stretch?
The type of stretch determines the length that you will hold it. Typically, you will want to stay in a stretch for at least 30 seconds. However, it may be beneficial to hold a stretch for longer than 30 seconds. When using your stretching routine as a meditative practice, such as in Yoga, many of the stretches can be held for long periods of time. One of the most important things to remember in regards to stretching is that any length of time is better than no length of time. You will receive no benefit from stretching if you are not stretching. Although 30 seconds is the ideal amount of time, benefit can be achieved from 10 or even 5 seconds.
Where should I stretch?
Stretching can be done anywhere. Typically the best place to stretch is in a safe, quiet environment where you can focus specifically on relaxing while stretching and on your breathing. However, you can just as easily obtain all the benefits of stretching at your desk, at work, or at home watching television. The most important thing to remember when deciding on a location for stretching is to choose a place where you will be free from distractions. Since you will need at least 30 seconds for each stretch it is a good idea to choose a place that will give you this amount of time to yourself.
How should I stretch?
By far, this is the most important question to ask. The old adage, “It is not what you do, but how you do it that counts,” plays especially true in regards to stretching. Whether you are doing Static, Oscillatory, or Active-Isolated stretches there should be no pain. When you feel pain, it is the body’s way of telling you there is something wrong. There are two important principles to pay particular attention to when performing any type of stretch; breath and relaxation. Breathing should be done using the lower belly. When breathing in, the lower belly should expand or push out. When breathing out, the lower belly should come in. A perfect example of this relaxed way of breathing is the way a baby breathes. A baby breathes naturally using the diaphragm expanding the lungs fully to absorb as much oxygen as possible. This type of breathing helps bring more oxygen to the muscles as well as helps the body relax fully into the stretch. The important concept of breathing will be covered in more depth a little later in the program.
The second principle is relaxation. It is very important to stay relaxed while stretching because a muscle will only stretch when it is relaxed. When you stretch, you should stay as relaxed as possible and go to the point where you feel a gentle tug but no pain. This ensures that the muscle is elongating naturally and not tearing. Many people can do the same stretch posture but feel the stretch in a completely different part of their body. You should never force a muscle to stretch. Always relax into it and let the muscle stretch naturally.
Warming up and Cooling down:
Although it is not mandatory to warm up and cool down before you stretch it is preferred. Warming up brings blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the muscle. This helps the stretching process and allows the muscle to enter a deeper stretch. The best way to warm the muscle up is with light movement. This could include walking if you are about to stretch your legs or swinging your arms if you are going to stretch your arms or back.
Cooling down is typically associated with exercise not stretching. Cooling down means that you let your body transition to a resting state instead of abruptly stopping after an intense exercise session. Some of the best ways of cooling down is to perform the same activity you were doing but at a slower pace. If you were jogging, walking will help cool down your muscles. If you were lifting heavy weights, light calisthenics or stretching will help cool down your muscles.