Stretching – that one important part of an exercise program that everyone knows they should do, but not everyone actually takes the time to do. Many people have an idea that they should stretch, however they don’t necessarily know how to stretch or what to do. Or even worse, they’ve been taught unhealthy ways of stretching that may be more dangerous than not stretching at all.
Most people when they were young were taught that stretching before physical activity reduces the risk of injury, and so this was the main reason why they believed they needed to stretch. In 2004, however, a widely-publicized study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated it had found that stretching before or after exercise had no effect on a person’s risk of injury. And so for a lot of people, stretching now seemed pointless. The problem with this is that they were only reporting on one type of stretching – static stretching. Static stretching involves holding a specific position for a certain amount of time to allow muscles to relax, and can be beneficial at the end of a workout to help restore normal length of our muscles. It can avoid shortening that can lead to postural problems and muscle imbalances (think of the big guys at the gym who can’t lower their arms all the way down to their sides.) Muscles need to contract to allow movement, but they need to be taught how to lengthen too. And static stretching is not the only type of stretching out there.
Over the past decade, the fitness industry has developed many different methods of maintaining your flexibility and gaining more mobility, and they may have more benefits than you’d think. Various methods of flexibility training can have positive effects on your posture, muscle recruitment, mental state, stress levels, lymph and blood circulation, balance, metabolism, mechanics with functional movements, and risk of injury. Here’s a list of mobility and flexibility training techniques that are definitely worth your time:
1.) Dynamic Stretching
Unlike static stretching whose function is to relax the muscles, this type of stretching activates your muscles and connective tissues in the same ways you’ll be using them in your workout. It involves repetitive movements of the arms, legs, and trunk together that mimic many of the same movements we perform when participating in cardio training and resisted exercise. As the muscles repeatedly perform these movements, the blood flow, muscle length, brain-body connection, and muscle memory improves. The similarity between dynamic stretching and workout movements does help to reduce injury as the body and brain are prepared to work together to produce the correct movement. Dynamic stretching has also been found to improve speed and power with exercises like squatting, lifting, running, and jumping when performed prior to the workout. Examples of dynamic stretches include walking lunges, walking high kicks, walking knee tucks, skipping, unweighted squats, etc.
Yoga is gaining popularity among many different populations and demographics, and for good reason. Every yoga pose involves some level of strength, flexibility, and balance. A good yoga class will contain a wide variety of different poses and stretches, giving you a well-rounded sense of mobility. There are many different types of yoga classes – some which focus solely on long duration stretching and some with faster-paced movements put together that help you to gain stability in a wide range of motion as you move from one pose to another. Yoga teachings also focus on combining breath with movement, which can assist with relaxation and allow our muscles to stretch easier, and help us to stabilize through our abdominal muscles and move further into poses with a strong core. Many of the cues present in yoga classes use a phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition, which involves contracting one muscle to allow another one to relax, to help assist with muscle mobility and improvements in total-body flexibility. Being able to hold a standing or balancing yoga pose helps to improve stability with other types of weight-bearing exercise, improve our inner sense of our own posture, and improve our ability to maintain proper posture during workouts and daily activities.
3.) Myofascial Release
Myofascial release is a broad term for using different tools to help improve the mobility of our muscles. Foam rolls and a variety of trigger point release tools are currently very popular.
Placing direct pressure on the tight areas of the muscle helps to release adhesions (abnormal muscle tissue) and improve blood flow, which allows muscles to be more pliable and easier to stretch during static stretching and all other movements. And since our muscles are all bound together by an inner web of connective tissue called fascia, working on mobility in one area of your body will improve your mobility in other areas of your body as well. Do you have tight hamstrings? Use a foam roll on the bottoms of your feet and your calves and you’ll already feel a difference in the mobility of your hamstrings all of the muscles in the back of your leg. Myofascial release may not be the best tool to warm up for your workout, as you won’t be directly using your muscles, but try out some foam roll stretching after your next long run or heavy strength training session and you’ll definitely notice an improvement in how your body recovers from your workout.
4.) Eccentric (muscle lengthening) Activation
This is a relatively new method of improving our mobility and flexibility, however the principle behind it isn’t new. When we add a stretch at the end of a range of motion, it produces a neurological response for that muscle to contract more, which helps us to stabilize ourselves and have more control in greater ranges of motion. With this type of muscle activation, you not only increase your strength but you are able to move farther, which increases your ability to perform physical exercises as well as any activity in daily life that involves bending, extending, reaching, lifting, twisting, pushing, pulling, and the list goes on. One excellent way to accomplish this is by using the ActivMotion Bar. In 2014, the University of Michigan found that when comparing use of the ActivMotion Bar to standard dumbbells and medicine balls, the participants demonstrated 170% more muscle activation in the key core and stabilizer muscles of the body when using the ActivMotion Bar versus the other tools. When performing exercises in which you tip, tilt, or swing the Bar, the rolling dynamic resistance inside the bar will shift to one end, giving you that end range stretch that cues your muscles to contract and stabilize your movement. This method of training provides not only more mobility within your exercise program, but also increases caloric expenditure and metabolism and increases the efficiency of your workout as your whole body works together at once.
So now you know that stretching doesn’t just mean sitting around and struggling to pull yourself in a direction your body doesn’t want to go. You can utilize these mobility and flexibility training techniques to improve your performance during your workout, prevent soreness and tightness after, and help improve your physical and mental condition overall. The next time you go to stretch, think of all the wonderful things it’s doing for your body and mind, and contributing to your wellness as a whole! It’s definitely worth spending some time on.
For reference, the new IGNITE functional training program by ActivMotion Bar will include all of the above mobility and flexibility training techniques in short, simple fun and challenging routines!
Thanks for reading!