#Stretching exercises are not peripheral to other exercises meant to meet other fitness goals. Flexibility is as indispensable for good health as all other health-related fitness components: cardiovascular endurance, maximal muscular strength and endurance and so forth. Stretching has benefits, there is no question about that. Every fitness expert will tell you to incorporate stretching activities in your repertoire of exercises. Whether your fitness goal is to compete at the elite level of sports or whether you are just putting in work for general health purposes.

Stretching improves flexibility, which is the ability of the neuromuscular system to allow for efficient movement of a joint or series of joints through a full, non-restricted, pain-free range of motion. A simpler definition would be the range of movement in a joint or series of articulations. Movements such as the spinal vertebral joints involve a whole series of joints, which must all move together to allow smooth bending or rotation of the trunk. Movements such as the knee involve one joint.

The amount of flexibility you require depends upon your activities and or rather fitness goals. A gymnast, a ballet dancer, and a diver will, of course, require increased flexibility for superior performance in their sports as compared to persons who require it for general normal functioning and smooth movement.

Factors that limit flexibility can be altered with stretching

There are factors that limit flexibility. Some cannot be altered for example age, bone structure, and gender. As we grow older our range relatively decreases, women are more flexible than men by nature, and the bony structure can limit the end point in the range. Factors that can be altered with nurture include (a) Muscle and ligaments’ elasticity hence the length they can stretch.

(b) Fat levels: fat deposits can act as a wedge between two lever arms thus restricting movement. For example, a large amount of fat on the abdomen might limit trunk flexion when asked to bend forward and touch the toes. (c) Inelastic scar on the skin: over time skin contractures are capable of improving elasticity.

Exercises that stretch the muscles and tendons and their fascia will increase the range of movement possible about a given joint.

This happens over time, approximately 4-6 weeks if done consistently.

Stretching techniques

Most joints in the body are capable of more than one movement. For example, the knee is capable of flexing and extending. Flexion means that the angle at the knee reduces in size while extension is vice versa. Two muscles work in concert with one another for this movement to happen, and they are termed synergistic muscles. To achieve knee extension the quadriceps group of muscles at the front of the thigh contract whereas flexion/bending is produced by Hamstring Muscles on the back of the thigh. When the quadriceps at the front of the thigh contract to extend the knee the hamstring group of muscles relax and stretch.

When the hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh produce bending at the knee the quadriceps muscles at the front relax and stretch. Thus the way to stretch the Quads is by contracting the hamstrings and vice versa. The same is true about most joints in the body that are synergistic. The muscle that contracts to produce movement is called the agonist muscle while the muscle that is being stretched in response is called the antagonist muscle. In the case of knee extension, the antagonist muscles would be the hamstring group while the agonist muscles would be the quadriceps group. The antagonist is the muscle that is intended to be stretched. Some degree of balance in strength must exist between the agonist and antagonist #muscle groups for normal, smooth coordinated movement as well as reducing the possibility of muscle strain.

With that background, we can look at two techniques of stretching.

Ballistic stretching: It is also known as dynamic stretching. Repetitive contractions of the agonist muscle are used to produce quick stretches of the antagonist muscle. Its safety has been questioned especially for sedentary persons and for athletes who have sustained muscle injuries. Dynamic movements in a way create uncontrolled forces within the muscle that can exceed the extension limits of the muscle fibre, thus producing small micro tears within the muscle and tendons. But most sports activities require ballistic movements, for example, forcefully kicking a soccer ball. Ballistic stretching would be functional for such an athlete because it allows the muscle to adapt to the imposed demands and reduce the likelihood of injury.

It should be that which closely resembles the dynamic activity. In a nutshell, it should be done by those who are already flexible or accustomed to stretching and it should be done only after static stretching.

Static stretching: Involves passively stretching a given antagonist muscle to the point of discomfort (maximal position of the stretch) but not pain, and then holding it at that point for an extended time. It can be accomplished by using the contraction of the agonist muscle. For example, to stretch the triceps muscle you contract the biceps and that movement is achieved by bending your arm at the elbow. It requires the use of your body weight, assistance from your trainer, physiotherapist or training partner or use of a T bar primarily for stretching the upper extremity of your body.

It is less dangerous than ballistic stretching because there is less danger of exceeding the extensibility limits of the involved joints because the stretch is more controlled. Hence is more recommended for sedentary and untrained individuals because it does not cause muscle soreness. Instead, it is a relief for sore and strained muscle. Recommendations for holding the stretch vary. They range from 3 seconds to 60 seconds, but studies have shown that holding for 15-30 seconds is the most effective for increasing muscle flexibility. More than 30 minutes can be uncomfortable. Repeat 3-4 times for each muscle.

When to stretch

To effectively stretch, the intramuscular temperature should be increased prior to stretching.

Increasing the temperature has a positive effect on the ability of the collagen and elastin components within the musculotendinous unit to deform. Also, the ability of the mechanoreceptors in the muscles to respond to the stretch stimuli is enhanced when the muscle is heated. Studies have shown that the optimum temperature of the muscle to achieve these beneficial effects is 39 degrees Centigrade. What this means is that you should not stretch before performing low-intensity warm up type of exercise. But the best time is to stretch after your work out as part of your cool down because then the body is warm enough.

Benefits of stretching

It improves joint flexibility.

It can greatly enhance powerful and coordinated movements that are essential for success in many athletic activities.

Consider a sprinter with tight, inelastic hamstring muscles. He probably loses speed because the hamstring muscles restrict the ability to flex the hip joint and thus shorten stride length. Hence, he will be beaten for pace.

It is a relief for muscle soreness

It prevents injury: In a situation in which the muscle is forced to stretch beyond its normal active limits, if the muscle does not have enough elasticity to compensate for this additional stretch it is likely that the muscle(s) and tendons involved will be injured

It improves posture: stretching muscles which have been shortened due to muscular imbalances improves posture.

It relieves stress: we tend to tighten up when stressed and stretching these muscles relaxes the muscles and you at the same time.