Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thinking about stretching

The term “stretch” gets bandied around in a very sloppy way. It seems to have at least four quite different meanings – depending on who is using it.

Some people (wrongly) use it to mean a warm-up. A warm-up prepares your body for dance (or exercise) and involves raising your internal body temperature. The muscles get more blood; the joints get more lubrication. The most effective way to warm-up is to move the big muscles of the legs and lift your arms above your heart.

Some people use it to mean a cool-down after exercise. Yes, you should cool-down and stretching is a useful way to do this – but not all cool-downs are stretches.
Some people use it to describe what I’d call “mobilization”. That is, moving your joints through their range of motion by moving gently.

Scientifically, a stretch is a way to elongate your muscle fibres. You do this to increase your range of motion – it is not needed to prepare for dance – but is a way of improving what you are capable of doing while dancing.

You can think of a muscle as a stack of interleaved cards. Normally they are partially overlapping. When you contract the muscle they overlap more. Your resting length depends on how much they overlap when they are not working (contracting). This length can be increased by moving the cards (fibres) apart and holding them for a while. All going well, next time they are relaxed they are a little less interleaved. (click the muscle fibre sketch to see what I mean)

A stretch is done with a warm body and holds a specific (and non-working) muscle (or muscles) at their extreme limit. You release and repeat as required.

So what can go wrong?

If you try and stretch a body that is not warm (think of trying to bend frozen toffee) or push too far by using force or bounce the stretch you may tear something. Of you are lucky a muscle. If you are unlucky - a ligament or tendon. (Bouncing is a problem due to the body’s reflex to resist the stretch – if you push and release too quickly the body responds by contracting the muscle)

Next, although people may tend to be “tight” or “loose”, it is not uncommon for a person to have some tight bits and some loose bits. To make the most of your stretches you need to target the muscles which are actually tight rather than do general stretches. If your stretch involves several muscles what will tend to happen is the loose ones will get looser and the tight ones don’t change.

Finally bad technique. For instance, not aligning yourself correctly or trying to stretch a contracting muscle (this can some times be done but takes training). The most common ineffective (and potentially damaging) stretch is a standing hamstring stretch. When standing the hamstrings have to contract – so they won’t relax and stretch. Instead you are likely to stress your lower back; possibly tearing ligaments and in an extreme case damaging the disc.

Best Practice:

Assess what parts of your body need increased range of motion and identify which can be helped by stretching and what needs to be tackled first.

  • Find suitable exercises for each individual muscle group.

  • Then, over a period of weeks or months, stretch at least every second day.

  • Make sure you warm up first (increase internal temperature by a couple of degrees by walking, cycling or other big muscle group exercise)

  • For each muscle group:

    • Ensure your technique and alignment is correct.

    • Hold each position just where you start feeling it in the muscle.

    • Breathe – increase the stretch as you feel the muscle soften.

    • Repeat a few times.

  • Cool down

After some weeks, retest your range of motion and adjust your stretch program to reflect new priorities. If you have not made significant progress after 6 weeks get a sports physio or similar to check you are doing the stretches correctly and there are no other issues. For instance, some hip configurations mean some people will never be able to achieve significant hip turn out – let alone a lotus position - because the bones get in the way. Stretching will not help this at all.

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