Stretching, the truth: the science behind range of motion

In 1998, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommended that athletes incorporate flexibility exercises in their fitness program to develop and maintain range of motion.

As a result, flexibility training has become a growing trend in the area of fitness as the population grows older and seeks a softer workout to regain strength and flexibility.

The medias positive portrayal of yoga and Pilates, including pictures and interviews with celebrities like Madonna, Christy Turlington and Meg Ryan, has also increased the publics interest in this form of exercise.

But when people talk about stretching, what do they really mean?

Understanding stretching

Many peoples anatomic model for stretching is Gumby, which translates into their misinterpretation of the methods and techniques surrounding stretching. Flexibility and range of motion are critical components in the fitness equation, and every method and technique must be appropriate to what you are stretching and who is doing the stretching.

Each persons body defines its own range of motion, and there is no standard when dealing with a varied population.

To understand stretching, you must realize that your muscles are not in charge of your range of motion. Skeletal muscle facilitates bone and joint actions, which dictate range of motion. Each joint has a distinct contact surface that determines its mobility and limitations.

When you stretch your muscle, it is actually the joint and ligaments being moved across these various contact surfaces. Normal range of motion is part of healthy joint movements, but it is very unhealthy for individuals to stretch past their limitations. Studies have shown that people who continuously perform intense stretches that exceed their physical limitation create uneven mechanical wear on the joints and ligaments, which lead to osteoarthritis.

There is no question that yoga and Pilates have revolutionized the way many Americans exercise by going beyond a "no pain, no gain" mentality to a more holistic workout of the body. However, these forms of exercise can permanently alter body alignment, muscular balance and posture when students are pushed to extreme ranges.

You should never impose irregular range of motion on your body. It should be allowed by your body, without force. Some people are born with the natural ability to stretch their body to abnormal limits, but most people have to work at maintaining their normal range of motion or lose flexibility as they age.

Types of stretching

Further complicating the already-complex and controversial subject of flexibility is figuring out what exercises are best for you. Several methods of stretching will improve range of motion and enhance muscular performance. Heres a brief description of a few stretching techniques.

Static: Static stretching is often seen in the health clubs or at sporting events when athletes slowly stretch their muscles to the end point of movement and hold the stretch for a period of time, such as doing a split.

Ballistic: Ballistic stretching is a very controversial technique that uses bouncing and abrupt movements to gain momentum to create greater range of motion. Most experts feel that this type of stretch does not allow the muscles and tendons to fully adapt to the demand of the stretch position.

Active: In active stretch, the limbs and joints are stretched to a given point and held in position using an opposing muscle group. For example, to stretch your quadriceps you would bring your heel back to your buttock and hold it there using your hamstrings. This form of stretch is demanding, but effective because there is no external force applying pressure to the skeletal muscle.

Passive: During the passive stretch, muscles are taken through their range of motion by an external force, such as a piece of equipment, your own hand or a partner. For example, to perform a passive stretch of the chest, a partner would stretch you by securing your arms behind your body. The disadvantage of passive stretching is understanding how far to go; too little accomplishes nothing and too much can cause injury.

Slow movement: Slow movements of a muscle, such as neck, arm and trunk rotations, are stretching techniques that are more appropriate for warming up to do another activity.

Dynamic: Dynamic flexibility involves controlled swinging of your limb with a gradual increase of the distance, speed and intensity, without going past a healthy range of motion, such as a split leap in dance.

The benefits

Many short- and long-term benefits occur as a result of regular flexibility training. Initially, stretching maintains and increases range of motion and increases blood supply to the soft muscle tissue. The changes can enhance sports performance and help prevent injury. Initiating regular flexibility training will also prevent the body from losing range of motion and allow the body to function better as a whole.

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