One of the major difference my clients see between me and other therapists is my including stretching during the massage and my advice to stretch regularly afterwards. Stretching has been taught for centuries and can be easily observed in nature when animals get up from a nap. Why is something so easy and time tested so hard to do? My personal opinion is that so many do not know the answers to how, why and when to stretch. Without these guidelines many my attempt to stretch because they know they should, but quickly tire and give up since they have not been give the proper direction.
Lets first talk about the different types of stretching activities. There are basically two types of stretches, static and dynamic. Static is just like it sounds. You bend, twist, turn your body or appendage until you feel a stretch then hold it for an indefinite period of time. This is the kind of stretching we are all taught in school and sometimes we were even taught to “bounce” when we have reached our “end point” of the stretch. DO NOT DO THIS! E-V-E-R! Stretching a muscle until it is taunt then “bouncing” into the stretch to help us go farther is damaging the muscle fibers. Yes, you can move farther, but most likely you have just torn muscle fibers to accomplish that. This brings me to the next type of stretching, dynamic or active stretching.
Again, the name explains the difference. Instead of just bending, turning, twisting ourselves into pretzels and waiting for eternity, dynamic stretching can be done quite quickly and dramiatically decrease the chances of “over-stretching” or tearing muscle tissue. The principle is basic. Move your joint or body to whatever position you would normally get into to preform a stretch, once you start to “feel” it, then activate the muscle just every so slightly for 15 seconds. Then relax the muscle and proceed to stretch it a little farther. You will be amazed at the ease at which your body or limb will move. Continue doing this for 3-5 sets and then stop. The whole stretch should only take you 60 seconds per muscle group. There is another form of active stretching that involves your antagonist muscles. For example, the antagonist to your Biceps muscle is your Triceps muscle because it does the exact opposite movement. Continuing with this example, if you have very tight biceps, you might want to try stretching them by getting to your “end range” then contracting your tricep muscle for 15 seconds. Depending on which muscle group you are stretching this might be difficult to do on your own. After 15 seconds relax and proceed to move slightly farther.
By using active or dynamic stretching instead of static stretching, you will be amazed at the speed to which the muscle stretches, thus saving you much time. This process is also a safer way to stretch since you avoid the possibility of tearing muscle tissue by overstretching. The third benefit is that by using the muscle or its antagonist you are increase your brain/muscle connection. By doing this you are helping to retrain your brain to know your muscle has now been lengthened. This third benefit is especially crucial when you stretch before playing sports. This is why so many feel they hurt themselves if they stretch before activity. Which brings me to my final point, when to stretch.
When should we stretch? Much depends on our lifestyle and our body’s condition. If you are a office worker who is constantly in a seated position then you might want to consider stretching your hamstrings and gluteal muscle on a daily basis. Why not on your break, while still seated in your chair? Again, the benefits of active stretching is that it only take a few minutes to stretch a few muscle groups. If you have an active job or play a lot of sports, I would always consider it logical to stretch before AND afterwards. Just spend 5 minutes warming up, do some quick active stretches on the areas most in need and repeat afterwards. By spending just a few minutes a day stretching we can avoid so much pain later on in our lives by keeping our muscles healthy and flexible.
I offer stretching in my office and can help demonstrate some specific stretches for your problem areas. Please feel free to call and ask questions anytime.