Vivian Grisogono


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Opinions differ about stretching. What is a stretching exercise? Should a stretch be a bouncing movement, or should it be held? If held, how long for? When should stretching exercises be done? Can stretching prevent injuries? Can stretching cause injuries? Is stretching useful, essential or unnecessary?

Natural flexibility
Muscles in their normal state are soft, strong, elastic and pliable. They vary according to individual characteristics, some people being generally stronger or more supple than others, some muscle groups being stronger, tighter or more flexible than others in the same person. Adult females are generally more flexible than males. Children’s flexibility varies according to their growth spurts: when major bones have lengthened, the muscles around them become relatively tight, because their development comes only after the bone growth.

Flexibility can decrease through a sedentary lifestyle, or through doing activities or sports which create limited patterns of movement or increase muscle strength with the muscles in a shortened range. Flexibility can reduce with age.

If your muscle flexibility decreases, your body becomes stiffer, and the range of movement in your joints becomes more limited. Your muscles and other soft tissues may become more prone to injuries such as tears through sudden movements which push them beyond their elastic limits. Your joints may suffer from wear-and-tear pressures, causing osteoarthritis and degeneration.

Why should you stretch? 
Stretching helps maintain and improve your body’s flexibility. Flexibility is an important part of good body condition and overall physical fitness.

Stretch defined
I define stretching as a method of exercising passively in order to increase the elasticity of your muscles and skin. To a lesser extent, other, less elastic soft tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, will become more flexible through this type of exercise. It is now known that the fasciae, the connective tissues which surround the major internal structures of our body and divide the body into compartments, are able to contract similarly to smooth muscle, and can also be stretched and made more pliable.

How to stretch
My version, which applies particularly to injury recovery and injury prevention, is as follows: a muscle group should be put into its longest comfortable position and held quite still for a count of 5-10. The stretch position follows the natural line of the muscle group, with both ends held under tension. You find the position by activating the opposite muscle group to your natural limit, then exerting a slight pressure in the same direction to achieve the stretch. After holding the stretch absolutely still for a few seconds, you relax completely before repeating it a few times. The way you exert the pressure to achieve the stretch depends on which muscle group is the target. There are various methods. For many stretch exercises you use your hand(s) or your body position.

Which muscles can or should be stretched?
The muscles which we use to move our body are attached to our bones so that they can exert leverage over our joints. Muscles are arranged in various ways, according to the direction in which the joints move.

The muscle groups which are easiest and safest to stretch are those which are arranged in a line along the long bones of the arms and legs. These include the calf muscles, anterior tibials, front-thigh muscles, hamstrings, thigh adductors, front (anterior) and back (posterior) forearm muscles, front and back arm muscles.

Harder to stretch are the side gluteal muscles (hip abductors), gluteals (in the buttocks) and the abdominals. When stretching these, you have to be careful not to exert damaging pressure on the back.

The back muscles are the hardest to stretch, because they form combinations of long and tiny muscles arranged in layers and acting in different directions. It’s difficult to stretch any of them effectively, and all too easy to cause damage to the spinal ligaments by stretching too forcefully or in the wrong direction.

What should a stretch feel like?
You should feel very little: just a very slight tension or sensation in the muscle group being stretched. If you feel a distinct “pulling” or a sense of pressure along the muscles, the chances are you are over-stretching. Over-stretching will result in increased stiffness. There is evidence that the fascia is especially prone to becoming stiffer if it is forcibly stretched and then rested.

The feel of the stretch is very important, and can seem very subtle, especially if you’re used to pushing your body to its limits. The amount of stretch you can achieve may vary day by day, at different times of day, or according to other influences such as what activities you’ve been doing, whether you’ve been still for a long time, whether you’re tired or unwell, or whether the weather is warm, cold, dry or humid.

How not to stretch
Don’t bounce: bouncing movements are good for lubricating your joints and making them more mobile, but they do not create a lasting stretch effect on muscle length.

Don’t pull your muscles to their limit. They can’t adapt properly to a forcible stretch, and will simply revert to their original length when you let go. There’s also a risk of injuring the muscles if you pull them too far beyond their natural limit.

Don’t hold the stretch for too long, as you lose the sensation in the stretched muscles, and risk over-stretching. Don’t stretch and then try to stretch further from the comfortable stretched position, without relaxing completely in between.

When should you stretch?
I recommend stretching both when the body is cold, or not warmed up, and when it is warm. Stretching can be done at any time of day, provided you only stretch within comfortable limits.

Stretching is a useful part of a warm-up for sport, and I recommend stretching as the first part of the warm-up, so that you can become aware of any muscle groups which are especially tight, and work to loosen them gradually. Then you can stretch again once you have done the more active parts of the warm-up. Don’t expect stretching to prevent injuries, as the evidence indicates that it doesn’t, but that’s not a reason not to do it.

In my experience, stretching is an essential part of the cool-down after sports, to avoid muscle tightness and possible injuries resulting from the tightness.

Does stretching cause injuries?
Not if it’s done in the way I’ve described. The stretch position is done within safe limits. The amount of stretch is dictated by the natural flexibility of your soft tissues. You must always be guided by the feel of the muscles, and hold the position where it is comfortable, without strain.

How do you know you’re stretching effectively?
As the feeling of stretching, done my way, is only very slight, you may have doubts about whether it can work. It’s easy enough to check, as the flexibility of the major muscle groups can be assessed with simple tests, and then checked at intervals. It takes time for muscles to adapt to training of any kind, so don’t expect instant results. Think in terms of at least 6 weeks to see an improvement in flexibility.

If you stretch using more forceful methods, and then check your flexibility, you are unlikely to see an improvement. Your muscles may even get tighter.

© Vivian Grisogono 2009. Updated 2014