Within the lyrics of my favorite Kate Bush song, “Rubberband Girl” is the following statement:
“If I could learn to give like a rubberband, I’d be back on my feet…”
While we can’t all be Gumbi, the flexibility that we are born with can be conditioned further through exercise and a wonderful thing called stretching. Your joints are designed to move through space with the help of your muscles, tendons and ligaments (we all have these parts). The ability to take your joints through their entire range of movement and maintaining this range is an important part of injury prevention. Measured in degrees, flexibility diminishes with the passage of time and the amount of wear and tear on our joints and tissues that comes with aging.
That being said, there are very right and very wrong ways to stretch. The best route to go is to have a stretching program designed for you, much like a fitness program, that is based on detailed analysis of the activity/sport/conditioning that you engage in, your medical history and your injury risk factors. As a licensed massage therapist, prescribing stretches to my clients as part of their aftercare is within my scope of practice, but to design a stretching program I would consult with a personal trainer and physical therapist for input in tailoring the stretches to my client’s needs. Ideally, it is amazing to be able to work with these fitness and medical professionals as a team, much like you see in any professional athlete’s training entourage, to improve the performance and recovery time of the client.
Professional that I am, I am guilty of stretching incorrectly. I realized my folly after an especially intense set of yoga classes. I felt incredibly long and leaned out after each class, partly because visualization is a key part of really settling into the practice. I pictured my limbs extending beyond me to the front and back walls of the room, pulling my extremities ever further from each other like a yogic “rack” of sorts. At the same time, I was also working with my trainer twice a week doing a combination of weight training and Thai kickboxing. I believed that my leg strength would improve with my yoga practice. Yes, I could definitely kick my leg up to my face, but what I felt was a surprising weakness in my quads. The plyometric squats that I once could do 3 sets of 20 holding 15 pounders in each hand became impossible. My thighs shivered after only ten reps. After consulting with one of my professors, I realized that by overstretching my Quad muscles, I had made it a lot harder for them to contract. The demand I made on these muscles to perform the way I was used to in training was too much in this over-lengthened state. Even scarier than weakness, muscle fibers that are over stretched can sometimes rip, also known as a strain or “pull” which thankfully did not happen to me. Usually PAIN when stretching beyond the limit will indicate something has gone awry in there. I took a couple weeks off of yoga and within 2 to 3 training sessions, was right back at the level I had been prior to the overstretching. The experience was a cautionary one.
When designing a stretching program there are two types of stretching techniques to take into consideration – static and dynamic. A static stretch is when you take the muscle being stretched to the point where you feel tension (not PAIN) and hold it there. After a certain period of time (under 30 seconds) the hold tricks the brain into telling your tendons to let go, thus lengthening the muscle further and increasing your flexibility. Holding the stretch for more than 30 seconds was noted by researchers to have a negative affect on athletic performance, as it undermined explosiveness and power. Dynamic stretches take the muscle through its range of movement slowly and deliberately, gradually increasing the speed of the movement over a period of time. Therefore, a combination of short term static stretches and dynamic stretches that mimic the movements of my sport have proven to be the most effective way for me to prepare and repair my muscles. Coupled with massage, my stretching program has rendered me injury free for sometime now (knock on some wood, please). Learn to properly let your body give like a rubberband, as Ms. Bush sang, and not only will you be back on your feet, but ready for action!