(Hold & Release)
For many years we were told to stretch before beginning to exercise. Now we understand that static (held) stretching of cold muscles can result in damage to the muscle tissue and can cause injury. We have replaced pre-exertion stretching with warming up.
A good warm up prevents muscle strains and tears by gradually increasing the core temperature of the muscles, increasing the the flow of blood, oxygen and fluids through muscle tissues and initiating the first lengthening of the muscle fibers before we begin more strenuous exercise.
Prolonged exercise results in accumulated tension in the muscle fibers and a build up of toxic waste products within the muscles. In addition, when a muscle stays partially contracted, an abnormal state of prolonged contraction called contracture develops.
Contracture and chronic muscle tension not only shorten the muscle but also make it less strong and able to absorb either shock or the stresses of movement.
During a stretch, the muscle goes through a series of chemical and relaxation/contraction stages, depending on what message the muscle spindles are sending to the nerves.
What is the stretch reflex?
The duration and intensity of the tension determines what stage the muscle is in. For instance, when a muscle is first stretched it will allow some lengthening of the muscle fibers, but as the intensity and duration of stretch increases, the muscle spindles experience excessive tension and the muscle fibers contract in response, shortening the muscle to take the stress off of the spindles.
This is known as the stretch reflex. It is a defensive mechanism of the central nervous system to avoid over stretching and prevent muscle-tendon injuries. If the stretch is slow and gentle, the stretch reflex, in turn, will be slow and gentle.
Why can/t I stretch faster?
A second muscle receptor called the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) serves a different function. GTOs are located at the end of each muscle, where the muscle becomes tendon and attaches to the bone.
GTOs are sensitive to both muscle contraction and muscle stretch, although they cannot distinguish between the two. When they feel too much tension in the tendinous attachment, they send a signal to the muscle to relax. That’s why you need to hold a static stretch longer than 20 or 30 seconds to get any benefit.
Although it varies with each individual, it takes that long for the GTO to send it’s message to relax. After 30 seconds you can usually stretch the muscle a little further. This in turn causes an automatic contraction of the opposing (antagonist) muscle and prevents either muscle from being overstretched.
What is a Contract-Relax stretch?
Muscles operate in pairs, so that when one is contracting, the muscle in opposition to it automatically relaxes. This is known as reciprocal innervation, or reciprocal inhibition. This tandem action allows movement.
The quadriceps (front of the thigh) are a group of four muscles that straighten the leg. The hamstrings (back of the thigh) are a group of three muscles that bend the knee. If both sets of muscles contracted at once, the leg wouldn’t move at all.
If the opposing muscles pulled against the contraction of the first, no movement would occur. For example, when you bend your knee, your hamstrings pull the lower leg up in back toward the back of the thigh. The quadriceps must relax for this to happen. Remember, muscles pull bones, either toward or away from another bone.
In a contract-relax stretch, you are consciously contracting the muscle opposing the movement of the muscle you’re stretching. By holding the contraction for 5 to 10seconds and then releasing, you will allow a deeper stretch.
It’s common to be resistant to stretching. We are often impatient to “get it over with” and don’t hold the stretch long enough for the muscle fibers to actually elongate.
Hold your stretch for about 45 seconds. Don’t abandon the stretch at the first discomfort of stretch tension.
How to make stretching effective
The principles of slow conscious breathing, slow movement throughout the stretch and gradual release of tension apply here too.
Using your exhale to “let go” and allowing the body to move in the direction of the stretch, rather than pulling it into position, stretches the body naturally and gently.
Always begin your stretch with a long spine with your abdominals pulled in & up. Will assist in isolating the muscle groups you are stretching. Make sure your standing leg or legs have soft knees.
Many of us came from an era in which “bouncing” a stretch was thought to make the stretch bigger and better. Now we know that bouncing (ballistic stretching) will only increase the stretch reflex, ultimately making the muscles tighter. In addition, the risk of muscle strain or tear is high with this method of stretching.
Hold a stretch quietly with your body and breathe deeply, allowing the muscles to stretch on their own.
This is an important time to stay in your body. Researchers have found support for the theory that athletes who mentally imagine and rehearse movements in advance will be more successful in accomplishing them. These “rehearsals” involve minute muscle fluctions that send a wave of sensory information from the muscle to the brain and strengthens the neural networks and therefore the signal.
Seeing the muscles stretching works the same way. Envision the muscle “letting go” and getting longer. It will affect how effective your stretching is.
The message?… It pays to stay in your body!