Nowadays it has become a well-established fact that warming up prior to a workout should be dynamic and full of movement. So where does the classic static stretch come into play? In a day and age were cutting edge technology is being introduced into the world of injury prevention and rehabilitation, does the static stretch still have a role to play at all?
The Physiology Corner
First of all, let’s have a look at the physiology of static stretching, what’s actually happening inside those muscle fibers and finally what the benefits of the static stretch are.
The basic concept of static stretching is simple enough to explain, we maintain a tissue in its elongated state for a prolonged period of time in order to get said tissue to “elongate” and therefore move more freely and effectively in day to day life. This obviously has serious implications in the sports injury prevention and athletic performance world but also affects the quality of life of any individual.
Muscles vary in shape and in size, and serve many different purposes. Most large muscles, like the hamstrings and quadriceps (the muscles in the front and back of your legs), control motion. Other muscles, like the heart, and the muscles of the inner ear, perform other functions. At the microscopic level however, all muscles share the same basic structure.
I’ll go into a little more depth for anyone interested on what’s happening at a microscopic level. At the highest level, the (whole) muscle is composed of many strands of tissue called fascicles. Each fascicle is composed of fasciculi which are bundles of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers are in turn composed of tens of thousands of thread-like myofybrils, which can contract, relax, and elongate. The myofibril is therefore the basic element of movement. If we crank up that microscope another level, we’ll be looking at a sarcomere, the microscopic brick building the myofibril strand. The cement keeping that sarcomere together is a myofilament. Break down that myofilaments and we’ll see a huge amount of contractile proteins, primarily actin and myosin. These contractile proteins, actin and myosin, are therefore the building blocks of the human body.
Simply put, at a microscopic level, actin and myosin contract, giving us movement.
How to stretch?
Perhaps a somewhat over-discussed topic here but I still find that the majority of athletes and patients currently do more damage than good whilst “stretching”. Whilst performing a correct stretch one should be able to feel that muscular “pull” but not maintain an uncomfortable or painful range. Find that correct range and hold your stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds, none of that jumping around and jerking at the end of range. Another important point to keep in mind is that not all stretches were created equal!
1. Find a comfortable range (level of stretch), and stick to it!
2. Maintain a stretch over a minimum of 20 seconds.
3. Don’t jerk or bounce during your stretch.
4. Always consult a health-care professional if you are unsure about which stretch is best for you.
Certain stretch techniques are much better at isolating specific muscle groups than others; therefore, more often than not, a generic stretching regime may not fit an individual’s specific needs (especially if one is returning from injury). While there are a number of different stretches that tend to target specific groups very well, these may be slightly too advanced for someone fresh to the world of stretching or an individual recovering from injury! Therefore, as a word of advice; stretch regularly but stretch intelligently. Stretching is a powerful injury prevention and rehabilitation tool when used correctly and under the correct guidance.
When to Stretch?
This seems to be another area where a number of athletes, fitness enthusiasts or “weekend warriors” tend to go wrong. Whilst “warming-up” should include lots of movement and promote increasing blood flow, the static stretch still has an important role to play. If planning to squat or bench-press at the gym for example, static stretching and mobility of the muscles you will be using is a great idea. This will promote using full range of motion and correct form when training. The same goes for runners, cyclists, cross-fit athletes etc.
Current research indicates that static stretching will not promote recovery following an intense session. That being said, I am still a fan of having athletes and patients stretch following training. I find that this not only promotes injury prevention during future work-outs but also serves to calm-down the central nervous system following exercise.
About the Author
Matthew Camilleri is a Physiotherapy graduate from the University of Malta. He is currently reading for a Masters degree in clinical pain management with the University of Edinburgh.
He has been involved in a wide array of sports throughout his life, ranging from volleyball and handball to football and rugby, either through his work or participation. He has been involved in local rugby for the past 10 years and has formed part of the Maltese national rugby team. Outside of physiotherapy he is also an IRB certified strength and conditioning coach and sports first aider, apart from having a keen personal interest in sport and exercise.
Over and above entry-level physiotherapy he is a certified kinesiology-tape practitioner and an AACP approved acupuncturist. His main area of clinical interest is pain management, especially chronic musculoskeletal pain. He is also interested in exercise and exercise prescription, especially strength and conditioning.
Should you wish to get in touch with Matthew, feel free to contact him via email (email@example.com) or book an appointment via phone (99212822).