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Stretching Principles and Guidelines

By Chad Tackett

Flexibility is one of the key components of a balanced fitness program. Without flexibility training (stretching), you are missing an important part of overall health. Flexibility prevents injury, increases your range of motion, promotes relaxation, improves performance and posture, reduces stress and keeps your body feeling loose and agile. Although there is still some controversy over which flexibility exercises are the best and how often one should stretch. Most fitness professionals agree that the principles and guidelines of flexibility training that are about to be discussed are the safest and most effective.

Use Static Stretching
Static stretching involves a slow, gradual and controlled elongation of the muscle though the full range of motion and held for 15-30 seconds in the furthest comfortable position (without pain). This is the first and most important stretching principle. In our opinion, all stretches for each muscle group should be done by using this static form of stretching.

How often you should stretch is still not fully understood. Most professionals would agree however, that daily stretching is best, during and after exercise sessions. Frequent stretching will help you avoid muscular imbalances, knots, tightness, and muscle soreness created by daily activities and exercise.

Always Warm-Up Before Stretching
A warm muscle is much more easily stretched than a cold muscle. Never stretch a cold muscle, always warm-up first to get blood circulating throughout the body and into the muscles. A warm-up should be a slow, rhythmic exercise of larger muscle groups done before an activity. Riding a bicycle or walking works well. This provides the body with a period of adjustment between rest and the activity. The warm-up should last about 5-10 minutes and should be similar to the activity that you are about to do, but at a much lower intensity. Once you have warmed up at a low intensity for about 5-10 minutes and have gotten your muscles warm, you can now stretch.

Stretch Before and After Exercise
I recommend stretching both before and after exercise, each for different reasons. Stretching before an activity (after the warm-up) improves dynamic flexibility and reduces the chance of injury. Stretching after exercise ensures muscle relaxation, facilitating normal resting length, circulation to joint and tissue structures, and removal of unwanted waste products, thus reducing muscle soreness and stiffness. Body temperature is highest right after the cardiovascular exercise program and/or after strength training. In order to achieve maximum results in range of motion and to receive other benefits, it is highly recommended that you do static stretching at this point in your workout, just after your cardiovascular program and during or after your strength-training program.

Stretch Between Weightlifting Sets
Both strength training and flexibility training are so important for everyone. Those of you who have a hard time finding time to incorporate a strength training program into your lifestyle, can combine your stretching with your strength training programs. If you have had any experience in strength training, you know that for each exercise for each muscle group you train, you have a certain number of sets, usually between one and four. Between each set, you need to rest and let your muscle recover before going on to the next set. Well, what better use of your resting time than to stretch that specific muscle that you're currently training? Think about it, you've just done a set of 10 reps on the Bench Press. Now you have to rest, usually about one to two minutes before doing the next set. This is a great time to stretch your chest-- your chest is warm and you have time before you start your next set.

How often do you see people who neglect to warm up before their cardiovascular exercise or strength-training sessions? They begin going through their stretching routine before their muscles are even warm. It makes more sense to stretch each specific muscle between sets of strength training exercises. For example, if you are on a strength-training program where you do one exercise of three sets of 10 reps for each major muscle group in the body, you will want to work each muscle group one at a time starting with larger muscle groups and proceeding to smaller groups. Do your first set with relatively light weight to warm-up, then rest for a minute or so and then increase the weight and go onto the next set of 10 reps (or whatever your goal reps happens to be).

After the second set, your muscles should be warm and ready to be stretched. While resting before your third set, stretch the muscle that you have just trained, remembering the important principles of a static stretch, then proceed to your third and final set. Stretch the muscle one more time, even a little further. Go on to the next exercise for the next muscle group and after it is warm, do your stretch for that muscle, and so on. When you have gone through each of your strength-training exercises, you will have stretched each muscle without taking-up any more time.

Stretch Before and After Cardiovascular Exercise
If it is your day off from strength training and you are just doing your cardiovascular exercise routine, first warm-up for 5-10 minutes at a low intensity (50-60 percent of your maximum heart rate ) and stretch the muscles used. Proceed doing a cardiovascular exercise for at least 20 minutes at a intensity of 50-85 percent of your maximum heart rate (refer to the Global Health and Fitness Cardiovascular Exercise Program). Then cool down for 5-10 minutes at a low intensity (50-60 percent of your maximum heart rate). Now, because your muscles are very warm you should stretch each of the major muscle groups involved in the exercise, using the static stretching techniques we explained previously. For example, if you walked on the treadmill, you should stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and lower back. Proper technique for each stretch is absolutely critical for achieving maximum effectiveness in any one specific muscle group. In addition to stretching those muscles used in the exercise, now is also a good time to go through a full body stretching routine--since blood has circulated throughout your body and warmed-up your muscles.

I hope you have found the information in this article helpful. You now have the knowledge to achieve the results you desire and the benefits your body deserves. Your greatest challenge, however, is not learning new stretching exercises or the proper technique; it's not learning how long to hold the stretch or the best time to stretch. Nor is it deciding when to try new stretching exercises. The greatest challenge facing you at this moment is deciding whether you are willing to take action and make time for yourself and make flexibility training a priority.

When you begin achieving great results, the excitement and fun you experience will make the change well worth the effort. Action creates motivation! Good luck: I hope you enjoy all the wonderful benefits of an effective flexibility training program.

- Bio: Chad Tackett has degrees in Exercise and Heath Science and Nutrition, is a Certified Personal Trainer, and is a regular guest lecturer to both professional and lay audiences on the principles of effective exercise and good nutrition.




last update: February 2009



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