Stretching - Range Of Motion Exercises

Conditioning the muscles and subsequent tendons is important for optimal health and performance. It has been reported that over 30% of the injuries treated in sports medicine clinics are muscular related injuries. Yet warding off such injuries can be as simple as incorporating appropriate exercise routines within your daily activities and / or training / exercise program. It is important to make sure that the body is at a warm temperature before embarking on stretching and / or intense exercise. Raising the temperature of working muscles also helps increase the diameter of blood vessels (vasodilation), thus increasing blood flow through the body as well as aiding more oxygen to the working muscles for optimal function. Subsequently, adequate flexibility is important; along with being a protective mechanism to protect against tear and strain it also enables muscles to function at a greater force and length for joints (and subsequent limb range of motion) to function with greater speed and greater range of motion (ROM). A good analogy for this would be that of a rubber band... a warm rubber band stretches further and faster than a cold one, of which the cold one is more liable to snap. The following will focus on the area of stretching.

 

There are different types / styles of stretches which address different purposes. Some I consider of little use and even dangerous (particularly if not conditioned and experienced). Whilst some I would consider disadvantages towards performance i.e. long held static stretching (elongating the muscle and holding for a set period of time)  during a warm-up before a running, jumping related activity, as it can lead to a temporary decrease in muscular power (hence compromised performance), muscular weakness (hence potential for injury) and subsequent reduced optimal economy.

 

However static stretching could be advantageous for people who find it hard to exercise or for the elderly as this form of stretching helps improve muscle tone. Also, as you get older, muscles get weaker and oxygen-carrying capacity gets lower. One of the biggest problems you see as people get older is that skeletal tissues become less compliant, and what this means is that they become stiffer which subsequently affects posture and mobility / agility. Static stretching is also affective for those going through a rehab program. What we do know is that stretching a muscle helps facilitate healing of muscle damage. When injury occurs, the body deposits a cluster of repair materials at the site and when the muscle is stretched these materials are encouraged to line up properly, thus minimizing scar tissue. When we exercise, we create muscle damage, so whether we have an “injury” or not, we are almost certain to have some degree of muscle repair occurring on a frequent basis.

 

Whilst there's some dispute / controversy in the literature about the benefits of stretching (i.e. static stretching before activity e.g. read this article... Stop Stretching!), I feel stretching is one of the most important activities anyone can do to keep themselves in good shape. The tighter and stiffer you are, the more prone you are to injury. Pictorial examples of static type stretching are seen at end of this article. Types / styles of stretches (and the use thereof) are briefly described below:

 

• Ballistic Stretching: Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. This variety can potentially be dangerous and could lead to injury. I personally wouldn't recommend this form of stretching - particularly for novices (elite power based athletes may perform this variety).

 

Dynamic Stretching: involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach (ROM), speed of movement, or both to prepare the body for physical activity. Do not confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching. Dynamic stretching consists of controlled leg and arm swings that take you (gently!) to the limits of your range of motion. Ballistic stretches involve trying to force a part of the body beyond its range of motion. In dynamic stretches, there are no bounces or "jerky" movements. An example of dynamic stretching would be controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists. This form of stretching is conducive during a warm-up before a race or performance based training session as it is activity specific in relation to conditioning the muscles and joints through the ROM required and / or speed / agility required for the activity (i.e. sprinting, long jump). This type of stretching routine can also be done after an intense workout to help loosen the limbs & flush out build up of exercise waste material.

The following video (courtesy of Runner’s World)shows some examples of dynamic varieties of stretching...

- Just click on the arrow [ > ] to play...

 

 

• Active Stretching: is also referred to as static-active stretching. An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist (contracting) muscles. For example, bringing your leg up high and then holding it there without anything (other than your leg muscles themselves) to keep the leg in that extended position. The tension of the agonists in an active stretch helps to relax the muscles being stretched (the antagonists) by reciprocal inhibition. 

 

• Static / Passive Stretching: is also referred to as relaxed stretching and as static-passive stretching. A passive stretch in one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of the body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus (i.e. wall or fence). For example, bringing your leg up high and then holding it there with your hand. This form of stretching has been shown not to be conducive before a performance based activity as there is a chance of temporary muscle weakening (hence decrease in power and agility), potential increase in injury as well as affecting the 'leg stiffness' principle which is the ideal recoil / spring attribute of the muscles needed for ideal running economy. However, they are effective for rehab purposes. 

 

• Isometric Stretching (also associated with the following PNF Stretching): is a type of static stretching (meaning it does not use motion) which involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric contractions (tensing) of the stretched muscles. The use of isometric stretching is one of the fastest ways to develop increased static-passive flexibility and is much more effective than either passive stretching or active stretching alone. Isometric stretches also help to develop strength in the "tensed" muscles (which helps to develop static-active flexibility), and seems to decrease the amount of pain usually associated with stretching. These also are not conducive before performance based activity (due to the above reasons i.e. temporary muscle weakening and affecting optimal ‘leg stiffness’/limb spring attributes). However, they are effective for rehab purposes.

 

• PNF Stretching (related to the above): is currently the fastest and most effective way known to increase static-passive flexibility. PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is not really a type of stretching but is a technique of combining passive stretching and isometric stretching in order to achieve maximum static flexibility. PNF was initially developed as a method of rehabilitating stroke victims. PNF refers to any of several post-isometric relaxation stretching techniques in which a muscle group is passively stretched, then contracts isometrically against resistance while in the stretched position, and then is passively stretched again through the resulting increased range of motion. PNF stretching usually employs the use of a partner to provide resistance against the isometric contraction and then later to passively take the joint through its increased range of motion. It may be performed, however, without a partner, although it is usually more effective with a partner's assistance. These also are not conducive before performance based activity (due to the above reasons i.e. temporary muscle weakening and affecting optimal ‘leg stiffness’/limb spring attributes). However, they are effective for rehab purposes.

 

- The following are just 7 basic static stretching type exercises focussing on the major muscle groups of the lower limb. 

♦ Stretches should be done whilst your body is in a warm state i.e. after exercise. 

♦ Remembering to never stretch past the point of mild discomfort. 

♦ All stretches should be held for at least a minute (thus allowing the muscle group time to respond).