Stretching is a simple and effective activity that helps to enhance athletic performance, decrease the likelihood of injury, and minimize muscle soreness. But how, specifically, is this accomplished?
1. Improved Range of Movement
By placing particular parts of the body in certain positions, we are able to increase the length of our muscles. As a result of this, a reduction in general muscle tension is achieved and our normal range of movement is increased.
By increasing our range of movement we are increasing the distance our limbs can move before damage occurs to the muscles and tendons. For example, the muscles and tendons in the back of our legs are put under great strain when kicking a soccer ball. Therefore, the more flexible and pliable those muscles are, the further our leg can travel forward before a strain or injury occurs to them.
The benefits of an extended range of movement include increased comfort, a greater ability to move freely, and a lessening of our susceptibility to muscle and tendon strain injuries.
Every now and again there is a new study claiming that if you stretch too much you will lose both joint stability and muscle power. It's actually not as black and white as that. Over-stretching is an unlikely occurrence for most people. In most cases, by increasing our muscles’ length we are increasing the distance over which they are able to contract. This results in a potential increase to our muscles’ power while also leading to an improvement in dynamic balance, or the ability to control our muscles.
3. Reduced Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness
We have all experienced what happens when we go for a run or to the gym for the first time in a few months. The following day our muscles are tight, sore, and stiff, and it is usually hard to even walk down a flight of stairs. This soreness that usually accompanies strenuous physical activity is often referred to as “post-exercise muscle soreness.” This soreness is the result of micro tears (minute tears within the muscle fibers), blood pooling, and accumulated waste products, such as lactic acid. Stretching, as part of an effective cool-down, helps to alleviate this soreness by lengthening the individual muscle fibers, increasing blood circulation, and removing waste products.
a) a tight antagonist causing the agonist to work harder, b) a normal interaction between agonist and antagonist.
4. Reduced Fatigue
Fatigue is a major problem for everyone, especially those who exercise: it results in a decrease in both physical and mental performance. Increased flexibility through stretching can help prevent the effects of fatigue by taking pressure off the working muscles (the agonists). For every muscle in the body there is an opposite or opposing muscle (the antagonist). If the opposing muscles are more flexible, the working muscles do not have to exert as much force against them. Therefore each movement of the working muscles actually takes less effort.
Along with the benefits listed above, a regular stretching program will also help to improve posture, develop body awareness, improve coordination, promote circulation, increase energy, and improve relaxation and stress relief.