Do’s and don’ts of stretching

Stretching 1

A collaboration between Guillaume (Jeff) Malan and Dr. Kim Nolte (PhD – Human Movement Sciences).

 

Most people know that stretching can be beneficial specifically in terms of injury prevention and sports performance. However, it is important that stretches are performed correctly in order to get the benefits of the stretches therefore this article addresses the things that you should or shouldn’t do when stretching.

What is a stretch?

Stretching 4

Stretching is a way of lengthening soft tissues, specifically muscles and tendons (as opposed to hard tissue such as bone). Try to touch your toes with both legs perfectly straight, you will probably feel that the muscles at the back of your thigh are being placed under tension such as a rubber band being stretched. Now straighten your elbow as much as you can. You’ll see that even though the joint has gone as far as possible, you probably don’t feel a stretch in your arm, thus the bones in your elbow itself is the reason it can’t go further. If you try to touch your toes everyday, the stretching will eventually allow you to go further. But, no matter how often you straighten your elbow, that bony block will always be there.

Why stretch?

When you are flexible it means the joints in your body have a large range-of-motion (ROM). Those of us that have less than normal ROM are stiff, and regular stretching can have many benefits such as:

  • less chance of injury;
  • greater sports performance; and
  • maintenance of mobility into old age.

Stretching 3

There are many factors that influence how flexible you are, as well as how you will be affected by a flexibility programme. Some of these factors include joint structure, age, gender, connective tissue, weight training not done through full ROM, and your activity level.

Below follows the important do’s and don’ts of stretching.

Do’s

Don’ts

  • Do a warm-up beforehand – think of a ‘fizzer’ sweet, left in the sun it becomes extremely pliable, but put in a freezer it’ll snap if you bend it! Soft tissues such as muscles follow a similar pattern
  • Don’t force a muscle to stretch while still cold.
  • Do static stretches for the major muscle groups of the body (such as the back, hip, thigh and calf muscles) that are limited in ROM.
  • Don’t stretch a muscle that is still painful from a recent muscle tear.
  • Do hold the position still at the point of feeling the stretch (slight tension in the muscle).
  • If you’ve stopped flexibility training for a while, don’t try to stretch as far as you could previously.
  • Do stretching a minimum of two to three times per week, ideally five to seven times per week.
  • Don’t bounce at the end of a stretch. (It makes your stretches less effective and may possibly injure you).
  • Do hold each stretch for 30 seconds (holding it for longer does not necessarily make it more effective)
  • Don’t stretch an already overly mobile joint if it’s not necessary for sports performance.
  • Do each stretch four times.
  • Don’t stretch so far that it is painful.
  • Do breathe slow and deeply during stretches.
  • Don’t do the stretch rapidly. Go slow and steady!

Stretching 2

It is important to remember that you get different types of stretches. This article focuses mainly on static stretches (holding the end-point of a stretch still) but dynamic stretches (active type of stretching) such as swinging the leg in kicking motions are commonly used by athletes as it is more sports specific. It is essential that you are warmed up before doing these types of stretches.

What does all of this mean for me as an athlete’s parent?

In short these are the important points to remember about stretches:

  • Sport participation requires a degree of flexibility. The amount of flexibility differs depending on the sport.
  • You can improve flexibility by stretching regularly.
  • Before stretching, warm-up thoroughly. Appropriate warm-ups include jogging or cycling for ten minutes at moderate intensity or a continuous activity specific to your child’s sport.
  • Start off with static stretches, hold each for 30 seconds. After which dynamic stretches that are similar to your child’s sport movements can be performed, for example arm swings for netball or throwing sports, leg swings for rugby or running.
  • Ideally stretching is done after activities, simply because the body is thoroughly warmed-up. Stretching will improve your flexibility and lower your risk of injury, but stretching directly before a training session will not lower risk for injury during that specific session. Thus, think of the long-term benefits.
  • Stretch daily. How frequently your child stretches will be the most important variable that will determine how quickly and by how much his or her flexibility improves.

To conclude, stretching should form an important part of every training programme, and should ideally be done regularly. Remember, like other training variables, once ideal flexibility level has been achieved it is easy to maintain. To reap the full benefits of stretching and to prevent injury keep in mind the do’s and don’ts of stretching.

References

BEACHLE, T. & EARLE, R. 2000. Essentials of strength training and conditioning, Human Kinetics.

PLOWMAN, S.A.; SMITH, D.L. (2010): Exercise Physiology. For health, fitness, and performance. 3nd edition. Benjamin Cummings. ISBN: 9780805353259.

WHALEY, M., BRUBAKER, P. & OTTO, R. (eds.) 2006. ACSM’s Guidelines for exercise testing and prescription: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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