Most people understand the importance of aerobic exercise and resistance training for optimal physical function. Yet many people who make time for regular exercise fail to incorporate stretching into their routine. If done at all, stretching is shoved to the back burner and done quickly and sporadically.
However, stretching is just as important as other types of exercise if you want to achieve optimal fitness and function.
Balance is Key
Your muscles, tendons and ligaments all work together to move and stabilize your joints. When in balance, they produce fluid and pain-free movement and optimal joint stability. However, when muscle tension is out of balance, joint range of motion becomes inhibited and joint integrity is compromised.
Think of your body as a simple tent with posts, lines and stakes. No matter how carefully you place the posts and stakes, without tension from the lines, your tent will collapse. If there is too much or too little tension from any one line, the tent will become lopsided and less stable.
Your muscles, tendons and ligaments have a similar effect on your joints. They work in the same way as the lines of the tent to provide tension to stabilize your joints, and to produce and control movement. When muscle tension is out of balance, you set yourself up for pain, instability and inefficient movement that can lead to injury.
Achieving Optimal Muscle Tension
To achieve balanced muscle tension, you should regularly stretch and strengthen all the muscles surrounding your joints. Be careful to work opposing muscle groups so that the muscles on one side of your joint do not overpower the opposing muscles on the other side.
For example, if you just do biceps curls without working your triceps, and without stretching your elbow, you will find it difficult to straighten your elbow over time, because your biceps will become tight and your triceps weak and lax.
Another good example is the muscles at your hips. If you sit for long hours day after day, your hip flexor muscles will become tight, and your extensor muscles (gluteals and hamstrings) will become lax. Over time, the imbalance at your hip joint can lead to serious problems, including low back pain, pelvic instability and impaired hip movement.
Common Muscle Imbalances
Certain joint areas are particularly vulnerable to imbalance, especially if you are sedentary most days of the weak. Common imbalances include:
- Weak upper back muscles and tight chest muscles, leading to rounded shoulders and poor neck alignment.
- Tight internal shoulder rotators and weak external rotators, leading to shoulder pain and rotator cuff dysfunction.
- Weak mid-back muscles and tight rib cage muscles, leading to trunk instability and slumped posture.
- Tight back extensor muscles and weak abdominal and core muscles, leading to low back pain, trunk instability, impaired coordination between upper and lower body, incontinence, constipation and reproductive problems.
- Tight hip flexors and weak extensors, impairing posture, movement and spinal health.
- Tight hamstrings and weak quadriceps at the knee joint, leading to poor posture, knee instability and movement dysfunction.
- Tight Achilles tendon, causing poor posture and impaired movement mechanics in the feet, legs, pelvis and trunk.
How to Stretch
Stretching can be dynamic (moving) or static (still), depending on your goals.
- Dynamic stretching can be done prior to exercise, or as a break from sitting still. A dynamic stretch slowly and gently takes your joints and muscles through their full range of motion, allowing them to warm up and become prepared for more challenging exercise.
- Static stretching should be performed when muscles are warm. Breathing should be incorporated to optimize your stretch. Inhale prior to stretching your joint, then slowly exhale as you extend your joint to its longest length. You should feel tension in your joints and muscles but not pain. Relax into your stretch and hold it at its longest length for 30 to 60 seconds.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends stretching for adults at least two to three times per week. ACSMs guidelines advise:
- Stretch all major muscle groups.
- Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds, to the point of tightness or slight discomfort.
- Repeat each stretch two to four times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch.
- Static, dynamic, ballistic and PNF stretches are all effective.
- Flexibility exercise is most effective when the muscle is warm. Try light aerobic activity or a hot bath to warm the muscles before stretching.
Incorporating regular stretching into your weekly routine will help keep your joints stable and flexible, allowing you to move safely and fluidly, and promoting optimal spinal health.
The physical therapy specialists at Back to Health can work with you to design a stretching and exercise program that works with your lifestyle. Regular stretching and exercise are foundational to wellness and optimal quality of life. Contact Back to Health today, and schedule a physical therapy session to put yourself on the road to optimal fitness and function.
American College of Sports Medicine (2014). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 9th ed. Wolters Klewer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.