The importance of STRETCHING.
Stretching is one of the most ignored components of fitness mostly because it does not directly help in burning fat or building muscle/ hypertrophy. However, stretching is as important as any other component of fitness like cardiovascular endurance or musculoskeletal strength. It makes us more flexible and decreases the susceptibility to injuries. It is critical to make stretching a part of our fitness routine. Let us try understanding the importance of stretching.
Note: Although body flexibility and stretching do not mean the same, in this article both the terms have been used interchangeably for easy understanding.
What is body flexibility?
The ability of the body to sustain a complete range of motion around joints is called body flexibility. Stretching helps achieve flexibility.
What is stretching?
As defined on Wikipedia - stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon is deliberately flexed or stretched to improve the muscle's felt elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone. It is an act to achieve body flexibility.
What are the benefits of stretching?
Easier to keep correct posture.
Better prevention of injuries.
Ease and comfort in movements.
Increased energy efficiency.
Improved range of motion.
Better overall physical performance.
Understanding the science of stretching:
The more flexible we are the lesser is our chance of injury due to a stiff muscle.
Let us understand the role of two critical sensory receptors that help us stretching:
Golgi tendon organ
The Golgi tendon organ is found at the musculotendinous junction and is recognises tension developed around the same when a muscle is stretched to its limit. The muscle spindle is found surrounding muscle fibres and recognises changes in the length of muscle fibres. Muscle tension information and muscle length changes are passed to the central nervous system (CNS) through sensory nerves. If tension is held for some time, the muscle fibres can separate from its tendons (tendons are connective tissues which connect muscles to bones). To prevent damage due to separation, the central nervous system (CNS) uncouples actin and myosin filaments (the interaction between actin and myosin results in muscle contraction). This process is called autogenic inhibition.
When we stretch a muscle to its limit the CNS initially contracts the muscle as a reflex action to prevent damage and to bring it back to its normal position. In about 5 seconds of holding a stretch, the pain decreases as the body realises that to prevent the muscle from decoupling with the tendon, it should relax the muscle. The muscle starts relaxing and autogenic inhibition sets in. The uncoupling of actin and myosin resulting in autogenic inhibition is temporary and will be more noticeable in repeat stretches. The second time we do the same stretch there is no or very less pain due to no or very less involuntary muscle contraction and we can stretch with comfort as autogenic inhibition sets in. Thus, it is imperative to stretch at least twice and hold the position for a minimum of 15 to 20 seconds.
Although stretching (holding & repeating the stretch for increased flexibility) before exercise, workout, training, or any intense activity will increase mobility it will decrease the contractile ability of muscles and will affect physical performance. Stretching should be done always after exercise or training.
Tips to get the most from our stretching sessions:
Stretching requires us to be calm and have mind control. Have a set up that helps in stretching. For example, a quiet environment and soulful music will help us calm down and help stretch better.
The moment we stretch the muscle will involuntarily contract and there will be mild pain. Continue to hold the stretch so that autogenic inhibition sets in and the muscle relaxes.
Stretch at least twice to make use of the autogenic inhibition. The second time we do the same stretch, it is going to be easier than the first time that we stretched.
Jerky and bouncy movements do not stretch our muscles and have a high potential to cause injury.
Do not hold your breath while stretching. Breathe normally.
Do not overstretch as it has the potential to cause injury.
Now we understand the importance of stretching.