For years, I’ve been stretching before I jog, and I’ve done it for so long, it’s just habit. But for a while now, I’ve been hearing that it’s not the best way to loosen up or prevent muscle injuries.
After asking friends and doing some research, I’ve discovered that the stretching I’ve done all my life is now thought to do more harm than good.
Just 10 or 20 years ago, you tried to increase your flexibility with “static” stretching, which meant taking a muscle to its end position and holding it for 20 or 30 seconds, then repeating it. For example, to stretch your hamstrings, you’d reach to your toes and hold tension for half a minute and repeat. It’s the way athletes have stretched for decades. This static stretching is now known to decrease a muscle’s strength, range of motion and flexibility. Which are exactly the results you were trying to avoid.
Enter Dynamic Stretching
Today’s muscle-related studies suggest that “dynamic” stretching is a far more effective alternative.
The idea is actually fairly simple. A static stretch signals to the body that it needs to protect itself from the threat of an overstretched muscle. Rather than releasing and becoming more flexible, a muscle reacts by contracting, becoming shorter and as much as 30 percent weaker (September 2008, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, University of Nevada, see proper stretching techniques). Static stretching can keep a muscle in this weakened state for up to 30 minutes after stretching.
On the other hand, dynamic stretching includes a slow warm up, followed by specific movements that prepare and excite the muscle for use. Body temperature rises, blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases, bringing more fuel to the muscles. The body becomes prepared for the exercise to come by becoming more flexible with greater range of movement AND greater strength.
The process of dynamic stretching as it’s known today is a two-step process. First is a light, aerobic warm up such as a light jog. Start at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate and progress to about 60 percent. Spend only 5 to 10 minutes warming up, followed by a 5-minute recovery. It’s important that a warm up is not too intense and that you do it just before exercise.
Follow the warm-up by stretching muscles with various range-of-movement motions where muscles are not taken to the end point of their flexibility. These exercises activate all the muscles, joints and connective tissue required for the activity ahead.
Dynamic stretching works best when it is sport specific and related to the movement required by your workout or activity. For example, runners might simulate a running movement, bringing their heels to their bum followed by lunges and squats. Another popular stretch is more of a straight leg march. With toes flexed upward, kick your straightened leg up to meet the opposite hand.
Do five or six repetitions of several movements related to your activity. As a result of just 10 to 20 minutes of warm up and dynamic stretching, your joints will have greater range of motion and your muscles will be more flexible and ready to perform. Here is an example of a dynamic stretching routine.