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In Season: Stretching Softly

Take Care of Your Joints This Summer

Over time, an accumulation of physical stress can begin to take a toll on our muscles and joints. Overuse of muscles can cause them to become chronically tight and sore; and compression and torque forces on the joints can lead to joint dysfunction and pain. In turn, joint pain can lead to further tightening of the muscles via protective muscle splinting and the pain-spasm-pain cycle. Tight muscles can then further limit joint motion, leading. This cycle, once begun, can be difficult to stop.

Stretching is very simple. The essence of stretching is that it lengthens soft tissues. Taut soft tissues limit motion, whether they are tight muscles or any soft tissue that has accumulated fascial adhesions. Stretching can help to reverse this process. Even better, stretching on a regular basis can prevent soft tissues from becoming taut in the first place.

When and How to Stretch

There are a number of choices when it comes to stretching. Perhaps the first question is: When should we stretch? Interestingly, the answer to this question largely rests on what type of stretching is done. Stretching can be broadly divided into two main types: classic, static stretching and dynamic stretching.

Static stretching (3 reps): Stretching position that is held for a prolonged period of time, usually between 10 and 20 seconds (although some advocates recommend holding the stretch for several minutes).

Dynamic stretching (5-10 reps): This is a movement-oriented style of stretching in which the position of the stretch is held for only a very short period of time, usually between one and three seconds. Also known as mobilization stretching, dynamic stretching is actually as much a warm-up activity for the body as a stretch.

Classic static stretching should be done only after the tissues of the body are first warmed up by physical movement. This means that we should statically stretch after engaging in some other physical activity, such as exercise. Alternately, we could statically stretch after warming the body via the use of heat, perhaps a shower, bath or even a heating pad.

If static stretching is best performed after physical movement, then dynamic stretching is best done as a combination warm-up mobilization before static stretching begins. The movement aspect of dynamic stretching better increases local blood circulation and moves synovial fluid, aiding in better nutrition to the joint surfaces. And, of course, the soft tissues on the other side of the joint are lengthened and therefore stretched.

How hard should we stretch?

When stretching a muscle, bring the muscle to the point of tension where it just starts to resist the stretch; then themuscle should be slowly stretched, just slightly longer than the point where tissue tension was reached.Stretching is like the proverbial Goldilocks and the Three Bears story. Too gentle and nothing is accomplished; too strong and the muscle will respond with a muscle spindle stretch reflex that causes a spasm. Muscle spindle stretch reflexes are triggered by a stretch that is either too strong or too fast. Therefore, the force of a stretch needs to be just right, and
it needs to be done slowly.

How much time should we spend stretching?

It all depends on your schedule and how much of your body you want to stretch. There are key regions of the body that tend to be physically stressed more than the others when the upper limbs are frequently used, such as the shoulder and forearm of the upper extremity, posterior trunk and neck muscles of the spine, and the hip flexors, hamstrings and plantar flexors of the lower extremity.

Routine (10-15 minutes): If one of these specific regions is tighter than the rest, then it may be desirable to stretch that region more often than the other regions. If a stretch is performed correctly—not done too forcefully, too fast, and does not cause pain—then it can be repeated during the day as often as desired.


  • Figure 1: Place the forearm against a door frame and lean into the doorway. Note: The arm should be abducted ninety degrees (horizontal); it could be abducted more or less to better stretch lower or upper fibers on the region respectively.
  • Figure 2: Bring your arm forward and across your chest. Changing the height of the arm can alter which fibers are optimally stretched.





  • Figure 3: Draw both knees into the chest. To increase the stretch for the extensor muscles on one side, deviating the thighs toward the opposite side can be added to the stretch.
  • Figure 4: Stretch for the lateral trunk.





  • Figure 5: Draw your thigh up across your body. Varying the exact angle of the thigh can optimally stretch different fibers of the gluteal region.
  • Figure 6: With the knee joint fully extended, rock forward with the pelvis (the spine does not need to bend).


The key to maintaining low physical stress is to be proactive and practice stretching so that you can prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Along with stretching, receiving massage therapy can be extremely relaxing and therapeutic. Your well-being is important and with a combination of mind and body exercise, you could be well on the way to feeling your best this summer.

The research

A study featured in AMTA’s Research Roundup that was conducted by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and McMaster University in Hamilton, showed that massage therapy decreases the inflammation of skeletal muscles that are acutely damaged through exercise. Further, the research indicates that for individuals who incur musculoskeletal injuries, such as fractures, dislocated bones, sprained ligaments, and strained muscles or tendons—massage therapy can have a significant impact.

So, if you're seeking a solution for repairing your muscles after exercising, stretching along with massage therapy could help ease some of the pain and lead to more effective exercise. 

Source: This article was excerpted from mtj® (Massage Therapy Journal®) Summer 2010. Subscribe to read the entire article.

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