Most of us were taught in PE class to stretch and then start our game. When you’re young, you can get away with that. But the best order of events in any physical activity is WARM UP first and foremost. The most important time to stretch is in the middle of activity and at the end of activity, when our muscles and tendons are more pliable.
How many of us rushed out into the cold to shovel snow, a very strenuous activity, with no warm up? This is one of the more egregious examples of how we risk injury. But with the warmer weather coming along, don’t be fooled into thinking warm air = warm muscles. Whether indoors or out, in hot or cold temperatures, start gradually with your movement.
Guidelines based on the latest research on effective stretching:
1) Activating the opposite or antagonistic muscle greatly enhances the stretch. E.g. Activate your triceps while stretching your biceps. Activate your gluteus maximus while stretching your psoas (hip flexor) in a lunge. Ask me for examples.
2) The best stretch duration is repeated 2 second stretches, rather than the old school 20 – 30 second stretch. This way we avoid the myotactic stretch reflex that kicks in after 2 seconds.
3) Stretch only the tight, shortened muscles, and strengthen the elongated, weak muscles. These are the same on 99% of the population. E.g. Stretch your pectoral muscles and strengthen your rhomboids and lower traps.
Stretching during the workday
Another use for stretching is to avoid stiffness and pain from prolonged sitting at the computer or other desk activities. In this case we may or may not have the option of getting up and doing warm-ups. So our stretches will be slower and gentler. Movement is the key, whether preventing, reducing, or recovering from pain, stiffness and injuries. Stiffness and tight muscles are a part of life which we won’t entirely avoid. But by conscious and regular movement, stretching, and massage, we can keep things within healthy and livable ranges.
Today’s Post-Gazette had an article on the prevalence of back pain, and one of the key points was the importance of continuing to keep moving whenever possible. By far the best healing occurs in the presence of thoughtful movement.