The body needs flexibility in every day activities, not just in the gym. Tight hamstrings or gluts interfere with walking and can cause low back pain with prolonged sitting. Tight hip flexors can cause low back pain with extended standing. Tight back muscles compress the spinal vertebrae and discs.
Good range of motion is necessary for optimal movement, reduced pain and long-lasting joints. Even though most people don’t like to stretch, they think it’s the only way to become flexible, so they sporadically force themselves. However, stretching tight muscles in the old-fashioned way can cause injury. This article will help you develop new ways to maintain and extend your range of motion.
Muscles must be supple before they can be lengthened. Gumby (registered trademark) is flexible, because his body is soft and moist. If you put him in the oven, he would dry out and lose his famous elasticity. Then, when pulled, he might even break. And that’s what can happen when dehydrated, cold muscles are stretched.
Even though we were all taught to “go for the burn” and to “stretch until you can’t stretch any more,” most health professionals now agree that level of force is counterproductive. You want to feel a slight pull and, with just the right amount of tension, the muscle will relax. At some point a pulled rubber band will break. You don’t want that to happen to your muscles or tendons, because it will hurt, and the tear will be repaired with inflexible scar tissue.
Studies are now showing that active and dynamic stretches, which involve opposing muscles, have advantages over passive or ballistic stretches.(2,3) What’s the difference? Here are samples of different hamstring stretches:
- Active — muscle is stretched by contracting the opposing muscle, for example sitting on a chair and using the quadriceps to straighten the knee.
- Dynamic — range of motion using activity and momentum, such as standing and doing front kicks.
- Passive — constant pressure without muscular involvement, as in the classic stretch: sit on the floor with leg(s) outstretched and lean forward so the body weight pulls the muscles.
- Ballistic — using bouncing movements to increase the pull, such as standing and reaching for the toes with pulsing motions.
Perhaps one reason people don’t like to stretch is that we’ve been using the wrong strategies, mostly ballistic and passive. Simple changes can bring your stretching up-to-date, improve the effectiveness, and make it more pleasant.
- Add motion, but not bouncing or jerking, to stretching movements. When standing and reaching for the toes, actively tilt the pelvis forward and reach the sit bones toward the ceiling to turn a passive or ballistic stretch into an active one.
- Work into and out of each stretch. Undulate your spine as you stretch to the side and return to a seated position so there is more flow and less ouch in the movement.
- Include more activities that involve range of motion, such as swimming, dancing, and golfing. You’ll get dynamic stretching and work on multiple areas of fitness at once.