There is a belief concerning stretching exercises that, if there is no pain, there is no gain. What´s more, some advocate movements that cause pain in and of themselves, very close to the limits of the joints and ligaments. Other theories recommend bouncing to achieve more and more lengthening. This author belongs to a different school of thought, the one that promotes a rational, scientifically proven and effective stretching. It is called stretching in many languages, an anglicized term that comprises a global concept of stretches. The theory of the stimulus thresholds in physical exercise is also valid in stretching. This can be easily understood with the following examples:
• A stretch that is too light will produce almost no effect upon the organism, nor any improvement in joint mobility
• A stretch that is too violent or too extreme could cause an injury, or in the best of cases, a protective muscular contracture that could prevent you from improving your flexibility.
• A stretch that is just right, forcing mobility but without reaching pain or the limits of danger, will not only be more bearable, but it also produces better results. A stretch that is just right means more than the muscle is subjected to in everyday life, demanding, but not injurious. With most physical activity, at least in those of certain intensity, the warm-up is imperative. Stretching is no exception.
Some people mistake stretching with warming up, and it is not infrequent to hear some occasional athlete, or even sports journalists, comment that someone is “warming up” when what that person is actually doing is stretching. In fact, the correct thing to do is to first warm up and then stretch. The general warm-up increases blood flow and elevates the body temperature, two beneficial effects when it comes to performing physical exercise; furthermore, the specific warm-up increases the amount of blood that reaches the tissues we are about to stretch, thereby nourishing and oxygenating them.
We could review all the different stretching techniques and point out the strengths and weaknesses of each, but the reader will appreciate that we focus on those which have been proven effective, and here´s how to perform them:
1. Begin with a light aerobic activity that gets the blood flowing. You can choose to jog, ride a stationary bike, etc., for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Perform joint movements for the area that we are going to work, as well as for adjacent areas, for 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Occasionally, perform some resistance movements of the target muscles. For example, flexing movements for the pectoral muscles on the floor or against a wall if you will be stretching this muscle afterward. The passive warm-up, such as sitting in a sauna before exercising, does not appear to be the best or the most effective way to warm up. It is true that the outside temperature has an influence in the optimization of the stretching sessions, but the real warm up must come from the body´s internal structures. The simple repeated flexion and extension of a joint improves the quality and degree of a subsequent flexibility exercise. This is the moment to begin stretching, and here comes one of the most important pieces of advice from this book: the stretch should be gentle and controlled, taking it to the point of desired resistance and holding it there for a few seconds. One must avoid bouncing, ballistic movements (“throwing” the body part in question, which could result in an injury), and harmful over-exertions. The help of a partner can be very useful, but he must be knowledgeable enough and never force beyond the threshold of normal movement.
The respiration should be slow and rhythmic, generally breathing out at the same time one stretches in order to disarm the column formed by the intrathoracic-abdominal pressure. The body, and in particular the body part being stretched, must not be under excessive tension, which explains why some athletes injure themselves after practicing their sport when they conclude their training with rough stretches. And they do not understand how it is they got injured “if they were warmed up.” And what about the sedentary people who have decided to begin stretching as part of their overall plan to improve their physical health? Some sound advice is to first strengthen the body, that is, first develop a certain degree of strength, and then begin to stretch without abandoning the strength training.