How Stretching a Muscle Improves Strength and Athletic Performance
Years ago, most of us were introduced to basic stretching exercises as a standard and traditional part of the athletic training process. Our gym teachers taught us that stretching the muscles before a game or a period of activity would get our blood flowing, limber up our arms and legs, increase our strength on the field and elevate our overall performance.
Those gym teachers and coaches were correct in some aspects, but sports science and muscle physiology research have a come a long way over the years. We have learned and continue to learn new things about what takes place during stretching exercises and how stretching a muscle actually influences our athletic success.
Stretching the Muscles: What Happens When We Stretch
A large muscle is composed of smaller bundles of long, elastic muscle fibers. Each of these fibers is in turn made up of bundles of fibrous muscle tissue, which are made up of individual muscle cells. When a nerve impulse from the brain signals a muscle to move, some of these sets of fibers activate and contract, while the others remain inactive. When we engage in a more strenuous activity, more of the fibers activate. No matter how many fibers activate during a given motion, fast, responsive contraction and relaxation happen when the entire large bundle of muscle fiber and each individual cell within it are flooded with oxygen and nutrients from the blood stream.
Stretching a muscle helps to dilate the blood vessels and bring more body heat to the muscle tissue, which allows a more efficient uptake of nutrients and oxygen. Stretching the muscles also brings heat and flexibility to the tendons and ligaments that anchor them, and this can increase our range of motion. Some physiologists compare muscle fibers to the fibers in a piece of cloth; when a wrinkled cloth is stretched out, the fibers organize and line up in the same direction. And when this happens to muscle tissue, nutrient flow and nerve impulses travel more efficiently. Damaged cell parts, lactic acid build-up, and other forms of waste are also removed easily, which allows muscles to recover faster from general wear and tear.
But for reasons which are not yet fully understood by sports physiologists, stretching a muscle using a static motion immediately before a period of activity actually seems to reduce muscle strength during that activity. 30 second toe touches, for example, appear to weaken rather than strengthen the hamstrings for about thirty minutes after the stretching exercises take place.
All the same, stretching a muscle feels good. And whenever something feels as beneficial as a set of balanced stretching exercises, we shouldn’t discount its value to our health just because it slows us down for a brief period afterwards. Besides, ancient stretching traditions like yoga have taught us that stretching the muscles regularly can offer a cascade of countless benefits for our bodies. So what’s the solution? Should athletes engage in pre-training and pre-game stretching exercises, or not? The answer is yes. Stretching will decrese pain with extended range of motion. It is not advised to do extensive stretching immediately before competition due to this concept, but stretching throughout your training is essential.
Stretching the Muscles Properly: Timing is Key
When it comes to stretching the muscles for athletic performance, timing seems to play a crucial role. Dynamic stretching exercises also appear to offer greater benefits and fewer drawbacks than static stretching exercises. Professional trainers now recognize that older stretching exercises like toe touches and calf stretches don’t cause harm to the health of the muscle tissue, but should not be performed just before training and games.
Instead, athletes should begin a competition or training session not by stretching the muscles, but by warming up with a light jog or moderate physical activity that elevates the heart rate to about 40 to 60 percent of its maximum beats per minute. This activity should last for no more, or less, than about 10 minutes. Stretching the muscles should happen after the warm up, and it should take place in an active rather than passive fashion, meaning the body should be in motion as the stretching exercises take place.
After warming up and then stretching a muscle or group of muscles, avoid sitting back down and becoming motionless for a long time before engaging in activity. Warming up, stretching the muscles and then sitting on the bench during a baseball game, for example, can defeat the benefits of even the most efficient stretching exercises.
Dynamic Stretching Exercises
After your warm-up period, it’s a good idea to engage in a few active stretching exercises like the following:
1. Hamstring Stretching Exercises
Stand and kick your right leg up in front of you with your knee straight. As you extend your leg, reach toward your toe with your opposite hand. Keep your toes flexed rather than pointed. Drop your leg down immediately after each kick and lift the other leg.
2. Hand-Walk Stretching Exercises
Stand up straight with your feet together. Bend down and place your palms on the ground in front of you. Then walk your hands forward until you’re almost in push-up position. Keeping your knees straight, inch your feet forward toward your hands. Repeat this move, making your way across the room.
3. Spiderman Dynamic Stretching Exercise
Drop to the ground and crawl the length of the field or court using exaggerated motions as if you’re climbing a wall. Keep moving and keep your body as low to the ground as possible to get the most out of this stretching exercise.
4. Kicks and Lunges
Drop into a lunge, shifting your weight forward over your front leg. Then stand up, pull your back leg forward, and repeat the lunge with that leg in front of you. Make sure you’re stretching the muscles of the quads and hamstrings as you do this. Kicking your legs up behind you toward your rear end can also help if you’re stretching the muscles of the quads.
Dynamic stretching exercises like these can improve your flexibility and range of motion on the athletic field without compromising your explosive force. Stretching the muscles properly can also help prevent injury by keeping joint areas flexible, resilient, and stabilized. Use Kbands exercises along with your stretching routine to compliment your workouts and improve your performance.