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Although the benefits of stretching have been preached to us since the days of middle school physical education class, it is easy to get caught up in a “more is better” type of mentality. Stretching does have some benefits in cases of a true flexibility deficit, but there are other ways to improve mobility and performance.
First, we need to consider why a muscle is “tight”. Muscles can be tight from habitual postures during the day, or from an imbalance that causes them to overwork and seem tight. Sometimes we end up yanking on or forcing the muscle in an attempt to stretch it into submission, but that may not be the best route. One way to relieve tight muscles is to improve your postures throughout the day, especially the way you sit. You can be assessed by a physical therapist to determine which muscles are tight and which muscles are weak. Sometimes there can be an imbalance present in the body that may need to be addressed with a specific exercise program or manual therapy.
Foam rolling, or other forms of self soft tissue mobilization have become popular for working out “knots” or tight bands of muscle. These therapeutic techniques bring blood flow to the area and can loosen up muscles in a way that may be more efficient than stretching. Prior to exercise, a dynamic warm-up can be a better option than the longer-duration, passive stretching we are accustomed to. Movements such as skipping, carioca, high knee marching and dynamic leg swings can all prepare the body for exercise or sport without risking injury or overstretching. A study published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that static stretching can actually impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours. If a true flexibility deficit has been identified by a physical therapist or athletic trainer, post-workout is the best time to do some low to moderate intensity, longer duration, passive stretching.
Chris Gabriel, OCS (Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist), CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), practices physical therapy with the OrthoCarolina Wellness Center. Chris and his team treat a range of patients for orthopedic and sports medicine needs. He enjoys working with various local high school, college, and professional sports teams.