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Very often overlooked, even by those who are already exercising, there are lots and lots of benefits to stretching and flexibility. Our personal training teacher always used to nag us by saying “the basis of all mobility is flexibility – no flexibility means no proper movement”. If you see an older person shuffling along the street, this shuffling is most likely due to shortened hamstrings (the muscles that run down the back of the leg) that are stopping the leg going forward all the way properly.
Our muscles are made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of muscle fibres. These fibres are spun together usually in a slightly spiralling line that runs from the top of the muscle to the bottom. These fibres adapt and adjust to stresses placed upon them. Just as a muscle will get stronger of you train it, longer of you stretch it, inversely it will get weaker of you neglect it and tighter if it is never stretched. If you sit in a chair for long enough then your body (and the muscles) will adapt to work most efficiently for the challenge that they are presented with; you will end up chair shaped, with shortened muscles at the back of the leg and at the front of the hip.
Muscles run across all our major joints, working the bones like the chains on a drawbridge. If these muscles become tight there can be severe implications such as increased risk of injury, poor posture, back problems, reduced range of movement, headaches and general aches and pains. As the body and the muscles are a kinetic chain, a tight calf muscle can cause a tight hamstring, which will tilt the pelvis and give you a bad back. So, a pain in the foot can be a pain in the neck. Many knee problems are caused by quads (thighs) being either too weak (the knee cap will go wobbly) or too tight (the upper and lower parts of the leg will put pressure on the knee).So the muscles need to be both strong AND flexible.
Types of stretch are: Dynamic stretching: Rhythmical repetitive movements take the joint and its associated muscles through to a full or near full stretch. This is most effective before exercise as part of a warm up. An example of dynamic stretching could be swinging the legs back and forth or swinging your arms forward and backwards to stretch the chest.
Static stretching: the most popular type of stretching, this involves holding the muscle at full stretch to encourage lengthening and re-alignment. It also conditions the connective tissue (ligaments and tendons that attach the muscle to bone) and maintains the full range of movement in the joint. To keep flexibility hold each stretch for 15 seconds. To develop and improve hold stretches for longer, hold for 30 seconds or longer.
A static stretch should be held at the point where you can feel the stretch with a little discomfort. If you feel too much though, ease back on the stretch. Remember not to bounce when holding the static stretch. It is better to keep most of your static stretching for after your exercise session, as part of your cool-down when the muscles are warm.
Apart from static stretching, other methods of stretching are ballistic, dynamic and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, all of which are best done under instruction from a qualified personal trainer or sports coach.