There are a few reasons why muscles may get stiff in the first place. A history of injury to the muscle or joint may cause stiffness, as well as under using an area or even over using an area. There is also a hereditary component to muscle flexibility and general stiffness of joints – so yes you can blame your genetics!
It should be noted that stretching your muscles is differentiated from specific neural and connective tissue type stretches.
Current research has put question marks on the preconceived ideas that stretching muscles prior to exercise will prevent injury, improve performance and reduce muscle soreness.
There are two types of muscle flexibility, static or ‘passive‘ flexibility, and dynamic or ‘active‘ flexibility. Passive flexibility how how far a joint can be passively pushed to end of range, and active flexibility is how far a muscle can actively contract to pull a joint to end of range.
So, what are the different types of stretching?
This is a comfortable gentle stretch that is held in one position for 30-60 seconds. The idea behind this type of stretch is to take a muscle to the point of stretch where it actively wants to contract back to a shortened position ( inverse myotatic stretch reflex), this reflex causes an automatic relaxation through the muscle, which allows the muscle to be stretched a little further through range. This stretch should always be pain-free to avoid over-stretching type injuries – like the one I acquired after a yoga class 🙁 .
This uses the ‘inverse myotatic stretch reflex’ to a higher level than passive stretching. The muscle is stretched to near end of range and then with a bouncing type force, it is moved further into range. This causes a quick and strong muscle contraction, and therefor the associated muscle relaxation. There are far more risks and potential injuries associated with this type of stretching, and it is recommended to be performed under the guide of an industry trained professional.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) STRETCHING:
Otherwise known as ‘hold-relax’, this technique takes the muscle to the point where stretch resistance is felt and then uses an active isometric muscle contraction of the agonist. After the sustained contraction of the muscle, it automatically relaxes and the stretch can be increased. PNF stretching also uses contraction of the antagonist to relax the agonist. For example, if the goal is to increase hamstring length, the quadriceps are contracted isometrically to cause ‘reciprocal inhibition’ of the hamstring, to relax and increase it’s length. This type of stretching also has risk factors associated with it and should be performed by a physio or someone who has been trained in the method.
The take home message here is that while stretching may or may not improve performance and/or prevent injury, it is beneficial for your wellbeing, and combined with stabilising and strengthening exercises, it is a great way to keep fit and healthy. Stretches should always be performed gently without the presence of pain, and preferably after a warm up program.
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