As a personal trainer in Kuala Lumpur, people ask me a lot of questions about stretching and flexibility. The most common questions I receive are people asking what exactly they should stretch, and how often they should stretch it to increase their flexibility. Flexibility generally means that all of your soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc.) have normal extensibility, allowing your joints to go through an optimal range of motion. Despite this, stretching and mobility training is one of the most commonly neglected parts of a good exercise routine, and sometimes one of the most controversial as well. Most of us probably try our first stretch exercise around primary school age, when they tell us to sit down, lock our knees straight and try to touch our toes. Those who were the ‘flexible ones’ could easily do it, and the superstars amongst the class could even touch their knees with their foreheads. From this we quickly associated this ability with the meaning of ‘being flexible’, and from there we maybe added just a couple more stretching techniques to our exercise repertoire.
Since many people have most likely been doing this exact thing at home, in the gym, or during fitness classes, it is likely that if you walk into any of the gyms in Kuala Lumpur you will see the same stretching techniques performed absolutely everywhere. People often just do the same stretches over and over again automatically, and these common stretches become so embedded into our workout routine that no one ever seems to question why they do the stretches they do, or why they hold their stretches for a certain amount of time. Only when I became a certified personal trainer I learnt that both of these are crucial factors, and they can have a huge impact on joints, and therefore the way we move and avoid injury.
Every single muscle has an optimal length that affects the joint they cross. If a muscle gets shorter on one side of the joint, another one will get longer on the other side, and the joint will be misaligned, likely leading to faulty joint mechanics and an incorrect movement pattern. Let’s have a look at an example – when somebody is sitting all day at a desk, the person’s hip flexor muscles (the muscles you use when you do leg raises or sit ups, such as the Iliopsoas or TFL) will get tighter and shorter, while the hip extensors on the other side (the muscles you use to stand up or to jump, such as your Gluteus Maximus) will get longer and weaker. This constant sitting position can cause a permanent change in the length of these muscles, and can cause the pelvic to tilt forward. This is called ‘Anterior Pelvic Tilt’ (APT), and it is often responsible for the lower back pain that many people suffer with on a daily basis. Many other postural dysfunctions such as a hunched back are also the result of an altered muscle length, specifically of the internal rotators in the shoulder for example, and pose a high risk of injury too. Wearing high heels all day is another common example that can lead to a change in the length of muscles around the ankle joints. With these things in mind, we can think about the typical day of a person here in Kuala Lumpur, or in any other big city in Malaysia. They begin their day sitting in a car driving to work, they then sit in an office all day with their hands forward on the desk, hunching their back in front of a computer screen, then back in the car leaning over the steering wheel while stuck in the typical KL jam. Posture is so much more than just a bodily position, it can affect where on your body you have altered muscle length, which means it can also define whether you have a higher risk of injury or not when carrying out exercise or physical activity. However, there is something you can do if you suffer from muscular problems due to poor posture. Repeated, correct stretching can help you gain back optimal muscle length and strength, therefore decreasing the risk of injury – but remember that you don’t need to stretch every single muscle!
Being too flexible (hypermobility) can be just as detrimental to your body as your muscles being too tight (hypomobility).
During my personal training sessions in Kuala Lumpur I generally use three types of stretching, depending on the client’s goals and abilities. To correct muscle imbalances and altered joint mechanics I teach static stretching as part of the corrective flexibility training. Static stretching aims to improve muscle extensibility and is a stretch that is held for a longer period of time (20-60 seconds) to allow the autogenic inhibition reflex to occur. This means that every time you stretch a muscle, it will naturally want to contract to protect itself from injury. If you maintain this initial tension (try to never stretch a muscle too aggressively) for a prolonged period of time, the muscle will relax (because the Golgi tendon organ overrides the muscle spindles, causing the muscle to relax). At this point you can go further into the stretch and promote changes in muscle length.
Consistent static stretching will allow your short muscles to get back to their optimal length, correct any faulty joint mechanics and improve your overall posture and movement patterns. It is therefore very important that you ONLY use static stretching on muscles that are shortened.
Active-isolated stretching can be used when your joints have already achieved an optimal range of motion. It allows the prime mover muscle to bring a joint through a full range of motion while its antagonists (the muscles that oppose the same movement and need to relax) are being stretched. You should do 1-2 sets of this type of stretch, with 5-10 repetitions, holding each for 2-5 seconds. This should be completed before your workout as part of your movement preparation as well. For example, doing an active-isolated stretch on your calves just before running will not affect the length of the muscle, but bringing your ankle joint through its optimal full range of motion will prepare the joints for the work that is about to follow. So, at this point it should be easy to see that if a joint doesn’t have its full range of motion and you stretch it only for just a few seconds, you will then only be able to bring that joint through the limited range of motion that is available. Exercising with limited joint mobility can often lead to injury and further muscle imbalances – just imagine going for a run with an ankle that has limited mobility and flexibility. Isn’t it a better idea to regain full mobility in your ankles before your run, rather than after it where you may end up injured and therefore held back from any further exercise?
During my personal training sessions I only use dynamic stretching with clients who don’t have postural dysfunctions present, often as part of their warm-up and movement prep before any athletic activity. Dynamic stretching uses the body’s momentum and the muscles’ force production capacity to take a joint through its full range of motion, and it requires extensibility with optimal neuromuscular control throughout the entire movement. Examples of this type of stretch would be a bodyweight squat, or a medicine ball lift and chop, or even doing 1-2 sets and 10-15 reps of 3-10 different exercises. Dynamic stretching is especially useful as part of the warmup before doing power workout.
Any kind of repetitive movement (including sitting behind your desk in a KL office) can lead to permanent change in the length of the soft tissue, and you may now see that it is very important to know what muscles you should stretch, for how long and for what reason. Stretching a muscle that is already too long can further exaggerate an already existing muscle imbalance, and not holding the stretch of a short muscle for the right amount of time will likely not deliver the result we want to achieve. Knowledge is power, and knowing the reason behind every single stretch and exercise you do will always bring better results!