Stretching has been greatly studied in the past 15 years, and the results are in: static stretching is no longer a prerequisite to exercise and sport. Dynamic stretching has taken its place when preparing muscles and joints for physical activity. There are many questions that arise when it comes to exercise prep and optimizing performance:
Are you still an avid pre-exercise static stretcher?
What is dynamic stretching?
Do you warm up? Should you cool down?
Let's discuss each of these further.
Low Load Long Duration (Static) Stretching
Static stretching is defined as "to stretch muscles at rest." This seems counterproductive when we think about the times this type of stretching is most often performed – before exercise or sport. According to research, this type of stretching has been shown to actually decrease athletic performance. This fact is well known around the strength training community, and studies have only recently been testing the effect of this type of stretching with endurance athletes. Prolonged static stretching of a muscle and tendon decreases its 'stretch response,' which is a response where the muscle and tendon stores energy when it is stretched quickly. When this reflex decreases, the muscles are weaker, subsequently decreasing performance. So, you may be wondering, "Is static stretching even necessary?" The answer is YES, as long as it is done at the end of the exercise. Lengthening muscles and tendons is an important part of every physical activity routine and is appropriate for all ages.
Dynamic (Functional) Stretching
Dynamic and functional stretching help lubricate the joints and prepare the body for the bulk of the activity or workout. This is done by stimulating the same 'stretch response' we previously discussed. This type of stretching stores energy within the muscles and tendons and will translate to increased reflex response and athletic performance. For lower body, athletes' functional movements may include things like bodyweight squats, high knees, jumping jacks and lunges. For upper body athletes like overhead throwers or swimmers, these moments may include arm swings, arm circles and push-ups.
For most people who currently participate in an active lifestyle or play a competitive sport, the concept of completing a warm-up prior to activity is a no-brainer. A proper warm-up is a proven way to help decrease the risk of injury, as well as increase athletic and physical activity function. A warm-up is a mild to moderate physical activity that increases blood flow to the upper body and lower body musculature. It literally 'warms up' the muscles and joints, prepares the cardiovascular system for increased work and increases the body temperature. Hemoglobin in the blood releases oxygen easier at a higher temperature. Translation: more oxygen and blood to the muscles equals better performance.
Cooling down after strenuous activity allows the body to gradually return to homeostasis. Homeostasis is 'your body's happy place.' It is when your body's internal functions are regulated at a normal, comfortable state. Letting the body cool down can be a safer way to complete exercise. How many people (including yourself) have you known to become faint or dizzy following exercise? Part of the reason this happens is because exercise is ended abruptly. This allows blood to pool in the large muscles groups of the legs. Slowly decreasing activity will let the body slowly readjust and redistribute the blood, decreasing the risk of becoming faint or lightheaded.
What does all this mean?
So, the take away is this: no matter what activity you are performing, a proper warm-up is always the first step, followed by dynamic stretching, cool down, and finally, static stretching. The simple rearrangement of these components may very well be the key to better performance!
Stay tuned for next month's topic: "Adhesions are the Reasons?" We'll discuss chronic tightness from myofascial restrictions and adhesions, how to find out if you have an adhesion and what you can do about it.
M. Alicia Edwards, MS, ATC, is a certified athletic trainer who practices with Holy Cross Orthopedic Institute Fort Lauderdale's Sports Medicine Program. For a sports medicine physician referral, call 954-900-6653.