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How and When to Stretch Part 1

Posted: 8 May 2012

The most common type of stretch I see people perform is the static stretch. It is often done before and/or after the workout. I first started to stretch when I had just started karate. I learned to stretch in class and took this knowledge with me to the gym where I would religiously stretch before every workout. After my lengthy workout I would then stretch again for a good twenty to thirty minutes. Little did I know that this was a complete waste of time! 

Stretching is very specific just like training movements in the gym. How and when you stretch will determine your flexibility gains and the benefits you can reap from stretching. There are different types of flexibility. Static flexibility is your ability to take a muscle to its maximum length and to be able to hold it there; dynamic flexibility is the ability to take a muscle to its maximum length by use of momentum, such as throwing your leg up in front of you. Usually your dynamic flexibility is greater than your static flexibility due to your muscle tissue being elastic. When I was investing time into static stretches in an attempt to improve the height at which I could kick I found I was getting nowhere. Instead I should have been investing time into dynamic stretches which closely resemble the kicks I wanted to improve as this has more of a functional carry over. 

The best way to gain flexibility is by doing the movements you feel restricted in. Repeated exposure to these movements will over time make you more flexible, but only specifically to that movement. With my karate I should have been doing high kicks to get better and more flexible at kicking high. You get better at something by doing it. This seems obvious to most people but almost everyone I see makes this mistake. Often in the gym I see people shove small plates under their heels to be able to squat lower. The real problem is however tight calves. Get rid of the plates and force yourself lower into the squat without compromising form and over time the calves will gain flexibility and you will be able to squat deeper. 

What is The Point of Doing Stretches Then?

So where do all these other stretches come from and what is their purpose? That is good question to ask. Without going into a ridiculous amount of detail I think it would be best to talk about the different stretches and how they should be used. Let’s start with static stretching. 

Static Stretching

If your flexibility is sufficient that you can do your exercises with good form and depth then you should not perform static stretches before you exercise. Static stretching before you exercise will make you weaker in that muscle which is not good if you are looking to lift a lot of weight! However if you do struggle with flexibility in your exercises then your primary concern should be to get more flexible before building strength. 

Let’s start of by assuming that you’ve worked on the tissue quality of the muscles you are about to exercise (for those of you that are unfamiliar with this please read my other post regarding Tissue Quality and The Foam Roller). From here I would recommend that you stretch the tight muscle using a static stretch. A static stretch is where you take the muscle to its greatest range and hold it there for twenty to thirty seconds before you relax again. You should repeat this until the muscle doesn’t appear to get any more flexible. Following the stretches get straight into the exercise that causes you problems with regards to your flexibility. 

The extra range of motion (ROM) should allow you to get deeper into the exercise. For example with squats you might suffer from tight hamstrings which would prevent you from getting deep into the squat. Following some hamstring stretches you should find that you can get a little deeper with good form. Going deeper will allow you to train more ROM than you otherwise would have been able to. It is from training in this deeper ROM that you will get more flexible and at a faster rate than if you just tried to squat deep. 

The flexibility gains from the static stretches alone are only temporary and usually revert back within ten minutes of performing the stretch. This explains why the day after performing static stretching you are as tight as you were before you did those stretches. What is the point if you get nowhere! Use static stretching as a tool to get more out of your functional exercises instead. Do your exercise well and the flexibility will follow. 

To be continued…

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By Bastiaan Gresnigt

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