by Mike Dee, P.T.
Flexibility of our muscles is just that: the ability to adapt to a situation.
Regular stretching will train our muscles and tendons to adapt more easily to the demand we put on them when we play a sport, exercise, or perform chores at work and home. What type of stretch, when to stretch and how much to stretch are common questions and parameters. In my 30 years as a physical therapist I have seen the research on stretching reverse itself and disagree with itself. The good news is a little common sense goes a long way when stretching.
What do we stretch?
Our muscles are made up of 65-85% water, about 18% protein and the rest a combination of fat and natural chemicals. Of interest is the more fat a muscle has the less water it has. A wet muscle will respond and stretch better than a dry one. Daily stretching of muscle will cause the proteins in the muscle to temporarily lengthen and possibly increase their length a small amount. Performed daily, the stretching will train your muscles to respond and lengthen when called upon to do so. Part of this is a training of the nervous system as regular stretching will train the nerves to allow the muscle to stretch.
Tendons attach our muscles to our bones. Our tendons are made up of proteins called collagen. The collagen fibers for the most part are not elastic. When we stretch, we are putting tension on the tendon fibers, but we are not changing their length. Tendons have a poor blood supply and need to imbibe (drink) their nutrients. They do this when we stretch or contract our muscles. That’s one of the reasons stretching is so good for us as it keeps our tendons healthy. The muscle and tendon relationship is like a bungie cord attached to a small steel cable. The bungie cord can lengthen and shorten, however the steel cable has a fixed length.
Our joints have capsules which are made of collagen as well and tend to be stiffer than our tendons and for good reason. Stretching has the same benefit for the capsule as it does the tendon.
Myofascia is the thin white sheath that holds our muscles together and responds to stretching like the tendon, however is a little more elastic and can attain a slight increase in its length.
Slow? Static? Dynamic? Before? After?
These are the questions and types of stretching that, performed properly, can make for a very flexible and strong musculoskeletal system. If I could tell you to do one form of stretching, I would tell you practice yoga daily and attend classes to complement the daily session. Yoga is a great blend of flexibility, strength and focus. However, there are other forms of stretching.
We now know it is better to do dynamic stretching before exercise, sport or work. Make it simple and imitate the movements of your activity. Move slowly and part way through the movement to begin with and progress to greater range of motion and with more velocity. Professional athletes will do this prior to a practice or game for about 20-30 minutes. The weekend warrior should do this for at least 10 minutes prior to exercise or sport. This increases the body temperature, heart rate and elasticity of the muscle preparing it for the activity.
Static stretching before exercise has been shown to decrease the force of a muscle contraction. That is why we advise the dynamic method before exercise. Perform easy static stretching after your exercise or sport and again imitate the movement your sport or exercise caused you to do. I have my patients stretch to a point where they feel the first level of tightness, hold 20 seconds, feel a little release and go deeper into the stretch for another 20 seconds, repeating this 20/20 technique 3 times. Always do both sides and a word to the wise is to do these stretches before you go to bed as well as right after exercise.
Remember, flexibility and stretching exercises are literally nutrition for your muscles and tendons. Performed daily, they will help you adapt to most exercises, sports, and work with greater ease of movement.
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Mike Dee, P.T. is one of the owners of DEEPT located in South Burlington, Shelburne and Hinesburg. Deept.com Mike has been practicing physical therapy for 30 years and has held certifications by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a: Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)