Sometimes the simple act of touching your toes just seems monumental. Lack of flexibility puts a damper on sports and exercise as well as everyday movements. Several styles of stretching can help put the spring back into your muscles and bring your toes just a little more into reach.
Static stretching works on the principle of autogenic inhibition. Autogenic inhibition occurs when the golgi tendon organ, or GTO, in your stretched muscle senses tension and stops the stretched muscle from contracting, usually right when you feel you can’t stretch any further. The GTO convinces the opposing muscle -- the antagonist -- to contract instead, allowing the stretched muscles to release. The longer you hold the stretch, the more the muscle will release. Inflexible muscles benefit from static stretching since you control the range and depth of the stretch as you work your way gradually towards increased flexibility.
You may have seen a foam roller at the gym and wondered what in the world it's for. Self-Myofascial Release, or SMR, stretches muscles by applying pressure to muscle tissue and trigger points through the use of foam rollers, medicine balls or other devices. As with static stretching, SMR allows for gradual release of inflexible muscles since you control the intensity of the pressure. SMR also works on the principle of autogenic inhibition but jolts the muscles through pressure along the length of the muscle tissue as opposed to lengthening the muscle itself. There’s usually a spot along a muscle that makes you yelp when pressed. Placing that spot right up against a foam roller forces the gradual release of the muscle fibers. The initial resistance that may induce a whimper or a groan gradually gives way to the muscle releasing. The longer you hold the pressure, the deeper the muscle will eventually release. The foam roller allows you to “roll” your way down the length of the muscle, working out each kink of tightness.
Dynamic, or active, stretching uses repetitive motion to loosen inflexible muscles. Arm circles, gentle lunges or leg swings are examples of dynamic stretches. This style of stretching warms up and loosens muscles oftentimes by imitating a movement you may be about to perform and helps inflexible muscles gradually increase their range of motion. The key with dynamic stretches is to be gentle and start slow. Windmilling your arms like mad will not increase your flexibility and will probably only lead to injury. Start conservative and stick to 10 to 12 repetitions of the chosen stretch.
Keep your static stretches static and avoid bouncing or pulsing once you’ve entered a stretch. Known as "ballistic stretching," pulsing in a static stretch can be the worst for inflexible muscles as the repetitive bounce only tightens muscles further rather than convincing them to relax. Stay within a reasonable threshold of your tolerance with SMR. There’s no need to mash a screaming trigger point into the foam roller. Apply as much pressure as you can comfortably tolerate, and that should be enough to encourage the muscle to relax. SMR can be intense and requires lying on the floor, so anyone diagnosed with congestive heart failure, kidney or liver disorders, osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis should avoid this type of stretching.
- ACE: What is the Difference Between Autogenic and Reciprocal Inhibition?
- National Academy of Sports Medicine Essentials of Corrective Exercise; Micheal Clark
- Foam Rollers and Myofascial Adhesions; Melissa McDonagh
- Human Kinetics: Types of Stretches
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Types of Stretching
- Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images