I fell off the deck.
Not today – no need to rush to emergency with flowers and treats, not that I wouldn’t enjoy that 😉
It was a couple of years ago. We were laying down new deck boards. Our deck is high off the ground. It’s more like a platform in the woods. You know, don’t fence me in. I was nudging closer and closer to the edge until finally I went one step too far and…over I went, smack dab into the dirt and tree stumps below.
My instinct was to tuck and roll, go with it and hope for the best.
Luckily my flexibility allowed me to do just that. The tuck and roll trick I’d learned in judo class in college that never left me and serves me on falls and bloopers to this day. And my sustained yoga and stretching practices kept me more bendy than I would have been without them. It saved me arse.
Make no mistake. Stretching and staying flexible are important components of fitness and well being. And believe it or not, critical for top-notch body shaping.
After all, what’s going to save you in a fall if not your ability to bend, reach, and otherwise go with the flow?
So, when is the best time to stretch? Have you heard conflicting advice about stretching before or AFTER a workout? I know I have.
There are two central issues to consider when approaching flexibility training via stretching.
These two highly related issues are:
1. Thermo-Elasticity, and
2. The Stretch Reflex
The practice I have followed personally and in coaching and training is to follow this protocol to enhance your flexibility via stretching:
1) perform light activity to warm the muscles
2) proceed to more intense activity, depending on your goals for that particular training session (1.e. strength or endurance)
3) decrease exercise intensity as needed at the end of the intensity phase (#2 above)
4) proceed to stretching, or muscle elongation.
These considerations are essential for not only enhanced flexibility, but injury prevention as well.
The science of the stretch
To simplify things, let’s look at what I call “the science of the stretch:”
All soft tissues (muscles, tendons, joint capsules, fascia, skin) are more extensible when they are warm.
Think about it. What do glass blowers, blacksmiths, and taffy pullers do before they s-t-r-e-t-c-h their product?
They warm it up!
Your muscles are the same.
Muscles Are Thermo-Elastic
We need to respect the fact that muscles are “thermo-elastic”. When cold, muscles are rigid and inflexible. For this reason, all stretching is ineffective if it is performed when the body is cold, and should therefore be preceded by a series of warm-up exercises to increase tissue temperature.
There is another related characteristic of muscle tissue that needs to be considered as well. That is what is called the stretch reflex.
The Stretch Reflex
Muscles and tendons have a neural reflex arc that prevents excessive stretching, or tension developing.
You can connect with your own experience of this neuromuscular inhibitory response to demonstrate this phenomenon: have you ever noticed the tightening effect that occurred when you have gone too hard, too quickly into a stretch? It’s as if your body “freezes up” and locks you out of the stretch!
This is actually what is happening. Here’s how.
There are receptor nerves within your muscles that are very sensitive to changes in muscle tension and length.
When you move into a stretch on a muscle, spindles within the muscle send a message to the central nervous system. This message causes a reflex reaction, specifically the contraction of the muscle in order to prevent stretch damage. The exact opposite of the muscle elongation that you are trying to achieve with the stretch!
This serves an important function in protecting your musculature and commands respect. Then you can work with the phenomenon to increase your flexibility. To do so, keep 2 guidelines in mind.
2 Guidelines: Heat And Time Are Your Stretch Allies
However, you can use heat and time as your allies by following these 2 guidelines about stretching:
1) The first priority is heat – This you achieve by moving the body to warm up the joints, muscles, and fascia tissue that are a protective sheath around the muscle.
When the body temperature is raised via overall activity, blood flow to muscles, muscle sheaths, and all connective tissue is inspired. This then creates a state of readiness for more intense exercise, as well as stretching.
2) Next on the list is time – If you gently maintain the stretch for more than 6 seconds the Golgi tendon organs respond to the change in muscle tension by sending a signal to the central nervous system which causes the muscle to relax.
Basically, this means that stretching exercises should be done slowly with a gradual increase in the range of movement every few seconds.
I like to think of it as “inviting” the muscle into elongation through gentle persistence and coaxing, honoring the need of the muscle to not only be warm prior to stretching, and with all due respect to the reflexive response of the muscle to the stretch itself.
Effective and safe stretching can provide injury prevention, and help you build strength as well. Stretching helps build beautiful, functional muscle and beautiful, functional bodies. Don’t phone it in, and definitely don’t leave it out.
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