There was once a belief that stretching before a workout was just as vital as eating breakfast before the start of a big day. If you wanted to minimize your risk of the possible tearing of muscles, injury to joints, or run without pain, then stretching was a must pre-exercise component to one’s exercise regimen.
But why do we really have to think about stretching in the sense of injury awareness? Does stretching before exercising really decrease the likelihood of injury? What was once thought to be the ideal precursor to our normal workouts has now revealed conflicting results.
Current research has exposed injury-prevention stretching to now be a misconception and is, at best, inconclusive in regards to preventing injuries.
“But I like to stretch before and after my exercises, so how could that not help me?” It is not as if stretching is deemed ineffective within the physical therapy community. What is vital to physical therapy is how stretching applies and translates to the activity that will shortly follow.
In essence, one should warm up as an adjunct to stretching in order to perform a functional activity. For example, if you want to increase your quadriceps and gluteus maximus strength by performing squats, it would be best to utilize light sets prior to adding heavier weights.
The following warm-up routines can be used as adjuncts to stretching.
- External Heat: Heat pack, gel pack, sauna, etc.
- Self-Traction: Arm hangs, pendulums, etc.
- General or Specific warm-ups
- Jumping jacks, cycling, brief walk (General)
- Light sets of activity prior to adding heavier weights (Specific)
- Relaxation training
This is a simple method to help reduce and relieve pain, decrease muscle tension, and minimize anxiety and stress. The definition of relaxation training is “a reduction in muscle tension in the entire body or the region that is painful or restricted by conscious effort and thought.”
There are three types of relaxation training that one can use:
- Autogenic training: Conscious relaxation through self-suggestion and an advancement of exercises and meditation.
- Progressive relaxation: Using methodical, distal to proximal advancement of voluntary contraction/relaxation of muscles. Sequence for technique can be as follows:
- Place self in a quiet area, in a comfortable position
- Breathe in a deep, relaxed manner
- Contract distal muscles in hands/feet for at least 5-10 seconds, followed by consciously relaxing those muscles for 20-30 seconds
- Get a sense of reduced heaviness in one’s hands/feet, with a sense of warmth in the muscle that just relaxed
- Realize a sense of relaxation and warmth throughout your limb and then throughout your body
- Awareness through movement: Combination of sensory awareness, movements of the extremities and trunk, deep breathing, conscious relaxation procedures, and self-massage to change postural abnormalities and imbalances in muscles to reduce muscle tension and pain.
If one is truly relaxed, the following indicators may be present:
- Decreased muscle tension
- Lowered heart and respiratory rates, lowered blood pressure
- Increased skin temperature
- Pupil constriction
- Minimal to no body movement
- Flat facial expression and closed eyes
- Palms open with jaw and hands relaxed
- Decreased distractibility
When it comes to preventing injuries, there are numerous factors to take within consideration: warming up in the correct manner, technique and postural mechanics, and duration/frequency/intensity of the stretch.
What research shows is that stretching may not matter solely on any of the above factors, but may benefit from risk prevention if stretching was accompanied by a warm-up routine.
The more prepared that the body is, the less likely the body is to get injured. Stretching is not a magic bullet and may not make as big a difference as one would think in regards to preventing injuries. But if it is going to have any sort of benefit of risk prevention, then it has to be performed with other means of warming up.
If you have any questions or would like your stretching and workout routine to be evaluated by a professional, visit us at your nearest Foothills location. Injury awareness is one of our specialties, and learning to stretch and warm up your body is essential. Read more from our physical therapists on our blog or contact your local Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy location to schedule an appointment.