Stretching is a proven way to improve flexibility or range-of-motion; the amount of movement available in a joint. From most basic of everyday activities such as dressing, reaching overhead or bending to pick up items from the floor to complicated movements, flexibility plays an important role in our lives. Stretching exercises also help to prevent musculo-tendinous injuries while at the same time promoting psychological and physical well-being. Athletes, housewives, the elderly and those suffering from joint limitations such as arthritis, can also benefit from stretching.
The goal of stretching is to decrease the resistance to stretch within a tight muscle in order to increase range of motion and improve mobility. Controlled, repeated stretching of the muscle and its tendons will elongate the muscle and increase flexibility. Bouncing during stretching, called ballistic stretching, is ill-advised as it can cause pulling and tearing of the muscle and tendons. It is similar to taking a rubber band and stretching it rapidly again and again between the fingers.
Static stretching is the slow, gradual stretching of the muscle and its tendons to the point of pain, holding it for 20 – 30 seconds, then returning it slowly to the starting position. When done properly, static stretching is very effective in elongating the muscle, relieving tightness and increasing range-of-motion. For this reason, static stretching is most commonly used in therapy clinics. Each of the major muscle groups should be stretched at least four times in quick succession for optimum results. This can be done three times a week.
Another stretching technique that has been proven very effective in relieving tightness and increasing range-of-motion is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). This type of stretching employs a complex pattern of diagonal movements and should only be used by a physiotherapist, although there are some simplified forms that can be done with a partner or alone. With PNF, the person contracts the muscle and holds it for 6 seconds, then the therapist assists to stretch the muscle for 10-13 seconds through the available range.
Flexibility may also be improved with Yoga poses, Pilates and tai chi. Movements are slow and coordinated, requiring concentration and proper breathing. Through these stretching exercises, one achieves not only flexibility but improved posture, balance and mental alertness. Muscles become trimmer and stronger and everyday tasks become more manageable.