Stretching and exercise have been synonymous for decades, but how you stretch is almost as important as why you stretch.
Stretching is usually performed before and after exercise to reduce injury, increase flexibility and reduce severity of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). However, more recently, stretching faced a backlash by fitness professionals claiming stretching was bad for you. However, this does not look at the full picture so let’s dig a little deeper into why stretching is so important.
Static stretching is when you stretch in a single position (standing, lying or sitting) for holds of approximately 30 seconds. Research has found that static stretching before exercise does not reduce your risk of injury, but it doesn’t increase it either. In fact, studies have revealed that static stretching reduces peak power and force output in the stretched muscle. This effect only lasts for a few minutes, however, and stretching before exercise is still beneficial to your workout, however, it must be dynamic rather than static.
Dynamic stretching focuses on increasing blood flow to the body while moving in and out of ranges of motion. Ideally, this is specific to your upcoming workout or combat sport. So, for example, a boxer's warm up may include shoulder rolls and side shuffles before beginning to shadowbox, while a BJJ practitioner may begin with hip opening sequences and other light drills such as shrimping or bridging before they start their rolls. Whatever it may be, it should begin at a low intensity and gradually increase over the course of the warm up giving your body time to prepare, loosen muscles and lubricate joints.
Stretching is important because it readies and primes your muscles for the full range movements in the main workout that will follow. But, there is another big reason why martial artists stretch: flexibility. This is the ability of the muscles to lengthen passively through a range of motion. It also impacts our balance and can increase our strength. A lack of flexibility can negatively impact our ability to perform strikes as tight muscles inhibit our range of motion. For example, tight muscles around the hips can prevent someone from being able to reach high enough for a head kick in Taekwondo or Thai boxing.
Tight muscles can also affect general performance, for example, tight calves can impact your skipping or running by causing shin splints. Stretching and general flexibility are necessary to keep our bodies in good working order. After training, it is recommended to perform static stretches. This helps the body to cool down appropriately (as many classes do not include a pulse lowering phase) and helps to prevent the muscles from tightening up. Overall, daily stretching has been found to improve circulation. And increased blood flow can help your muscles to heal and repair quicker after a workout.
Stretching can really improve your training and is a critical element of martial arts practice, but can often be taught and performed in the wrong way. What do you think? Do you stretch before or after training? Do you notice any benefits from it?