Proper stretching techniques increases one’s capacity for flexibility. Divers need to develop flexibility to decrease the possibility of skeleto-muscular injuries.
Have you ever started to fall asleep sitting up in a chair? You struggled to stay awake. When you lost the battle your head plunged forward only to suddenly jerk back up again. Pulling your head back up was not a voluntary move. It was a reflex that resulted from stretches and bounces. It isn’t helpful to bounce when you stretch because of that reflex. Bouncing is one of five stretching goofs that can injure you over time.
Although flexibility can reduce injuries, stretching wrong can produce them. Bouncing on stretches increases flexibility but you shouldn’t bounce on stretches. Stretching isn’t a warm up. As a diver, you need flexibility but you also have a few things you should not stretch at all. How do you stretch right? Stick with me as I explain stretching and the five great stretching mistakes.
Benefits Of Stretching
There is evidence that with good flexibility you may suffer fewer injuries to your muscles and the tough fibrous structures called tendons that attach your muscles to your bones. Although not all studies support the conclusion of fewer injuries, the reasoning has good basis. If a muscle is tight its inflexibility limits the range it can extend. If you move in a way that surpasses that range you may strain or tear the muscle and its connecting tendons. With long term stretching programs a given muscle can to attain a greater length before it tears.
Several body areas appear susceptible to injury from poor flexibility. The range of motion required to strain tight low back muscles is quite small, accounting for many painful backs after a day of diving. Another area is the triple set of muscles behind each thigh called the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are prone to “pulls” and are a common contributor to low back pain. Opposite your hamstrings are muscles connecting your hip to your leg in front called hip flexors. Hip flexors bend your leg forward at the hip. Tight hip flexors, very common in people who sit a lot, add their share of low back pain and limit the range of motion needed for efficient fin swimming. Your Achilles tendon, at the back of your lower leg, attaches your calf muscle to your heel. Too tight calf muscles and Achilles tendons sometimes lead to tendonitis, knee and foot pain. So, what could be bad about stretching?
Five Great Stretching Mistakes
Stretching before warm up: Stretching cold muscles is one way to injure yourself. At cooler muscle temperatures it takes less force and length to tear your muscle fibers. Warming up literally means increasing your body temperature. Activities that warm you enough to safely begin exercise are large muscle exercises such as pedaling a bicycle or slow jogging. Stretching doesn’t raise your body temperature so it’s not a warm up. Wait to stretch until after you warm up. When you’ve exercised enough to get sweaty you’re warmed up enough to stretch. See the February Scuba Fitness column for more on warm up.
Stretching ligaments not muscles: Besides tendons that connect muscle to bone, you have other fiber structures that hold your bones together so you don’t rattle around. Ligaments connect bone to bone. Ligaments normally are not supposed to stretch much. They retain their length, within a range, to hold your bones in line so the bones glide past each other along anatomically healthy paths.
When injury or chronic improper stretching forces ligaments to lengthen they do not readily go back to their former length. Technically speaking, they are plastic but not elastic. Stretched ligaments hang shapelessly loose like worn out underwear waistbands. What’s so bad about that? A couple of things. Stretched ligaments don’t hold your bones in line, allowing them instead to rub and grind against each other at unhealthy angles. Added friction contributes to degenerative changes over time and all the pain and disability that accompanies them. Ligament laxity predisposes to sprains and dislocations. Divers need good forward and backward ankle flexibility, however, excess looseness – on the sides of your ankle, for example – increases your chance of ankle sprains because your foot can flop too far sideways. Lax shoulder capsules may slip out of place from forces that healthier joint capsules tolerate.
Each of us has different amounts of natural ligament looseness. Extreme ligament laxity is a common problem among dancers. With the increasing popularity of exercise classes ligament damage is also becoming common in the general population – caused by improper stretching instruction. These people need strengthening programs to compensate for their acquired structural problems and the damage that can result.
There are several things you can do to avoid stretching ligaments when you really want to stretch muscles. Keep the limb you’re stretching in line with the joint. Several well-known stretches hold the joint at an angle that puts too much weight and pressure on ligaments. For example, the hurdlers’ stretch twists your knee sideways. Instead, keep the non-stretched leg in front of you with your foot on the floor. Forcing your arms high up behind you strains the front, and weakest part, of your shoulder capsule. There’s no need to stretch your arms like that. Squatting pries your knee ligaments apart, especially if you have heavy legs. Squatting also is known to damage the small discs of cartilaginous cushion in your knees called meniscus. The bad knees of professional baseball catchers come from chronic squatting.
Avoid constant pressure on joints over extended periods of time. An example is continuously sitting with a rounded back. Slouching overstretches the long ligament running up and down the back of your spine called the posterior longitudinal ligament. A chronically overstretched posterior longitudinal ligament weakens your back. Habitually standing with your head forward also stretches the back of your neck with similar results.
Putting more weight on joint capsules than they can stand: The joint capsule jams many structures into a little space. It’s easy to tear or abrade joint tissue over time. Joint cartilage and ligaments have a poorer blood supply than other body parts. Low blood supply means slow repair that may not keep up with each small destructive incident. Some damaged joints never heal – forcing their owners into surgery. Damage usually occurs behind the scenes and can, over time, injure your joint to the same degree as a single accident. Chronic mistreatment slowly thickens a joint with fibrous scar tissue. Scarring makes the capsule less mobile and more uncomfortable as small abuses accumulate, accelerating the wear and tear of aging.
Knee tearing examples are squats and duck walks that force knee joints open. Avoid neck manglers like the “plow” – lying with your legs in the air over your head and all your weight on your shoulders and neck. A stretch that puts too much weight on your spine is bending over from a standing position to touch your toes or worse, bouncing while bending over. Stretches like that do more harm than good. You don’t need them. To stretch your hamstrings without hurting your back, lie on your back, bend both knees, then leave one foot on the floor and straighten the other leg overhead. The most back-foolhardy activity of all is bent over weight lifting such as dead lifting. But, back injury is for another article.
Unequal stretching: Do not stretch in one direction without countering the stretch in the other. An obvious example is dancers who stretch their legs outward without equal and opposite stretching inward. The outsides of their legs tightens and shorten, the insides loosen, until they walk like ducks. Later their hips and knees succumb to early wear. Another example you’ve probably seen is extremely round shouldered muscle men. They build up their chests without stretching them and neglect their backs except to allow them to stretch through slouching. A problem results called stretch-weakness. Their backs cannot counter the pull of their shortened big chests.
The most common example of unequal stretching is people stretching their backs and hips unequally all day long by sitting. The rounded back and behind get chronically stretched forward. Frequently the only stretching they do is more forward motion with toe touches, situps and pectoral curls. Damage builds up gradually. The consequences of overstretch of the back and tightening in the front run from poor posture, pot belly and shallow breathing to outright back injury, including disc trouble.
If you stretch in one direction, stretch in the other. Check with your physician first. After stretching your back forward, stretch backward by lying face down propped up on your elbows. After each half hour or so of sitting get up and stretch backward. When standing or sitting keep your ear centered over your shoulder, not in front or behind it, to keep your neck from overstretching.
Bouncing: When bouncing, you quickly reach an unsafe position before your pain receptors have time to signal you not to do such a thing. Bouncing can increase flexibility but at the cost of micro-injuries and is one of several reasons you’re sometimes sore after exercise. Bouncing is called ballistic stretching. In contrast, slow stretches, called static stretches, are not usually associated with delayed onset soreness and may help relieve soreness after you’ve already overdone it. There is some debate whether static stretching ahead of time reduces the delayed soreness of too much exercise but that will be covered this summer, so stay tuned for Just Over Do It.
Bouncing has an interesting effect on your muscles. The sense organs that pick up and send information about what’s happening to your body are called proprioceptors. “Proprio” means “self” and the word root “ceptors” refers to “receiving information.” Proprioceptors tell you about yourself. The most abundant proprioceptors in your body are structures called muscle spindles. Spindles lie embedded in your muscles. When you stretch a muscle the spindle stretches too, activating its sensory nerve. The sensory nerve carries a message to your spinal cord about how much and how fast your muscle stretched. Your nervous system sends a signal back down to tell your muscle not to stretch so much.
An example is maintaining balance. You make thousands of minor adjustments all day while sitting, standing and walking without thinking about it. If you lean forward, the spindles in your back and the back of your legs stretch. They signal your spine to send a return message to your muscles; not only to contract but how much to contract. They pull you back to an upright position but not past it. The muscle stretch-contraction loop is called the myotatic reflex or stretch reflex.
The sudden bouncing stretch activates muscle spindles. Your spindles send a sensory message up your neural chain of command, triggering a motor message back down to contract the muscle. Bouncing again during the contract reflex forces the muscle to lengthen against the energy of its own contraction. Damage can occur in the structures that both stretch and resist the stretch.
Remember the falling asleep scenario at the beginning of this story? When the sudden stretch of your head bouncing forward activated neck muscle spindles, the message came back to contract your neck muscles just as suddenly, pulling your head back up again. Now you know it was your muscle spindles at work in a stretch reflex.
Here’s What To Do:
The tight-jointed diver may have a greater tendency for muscle pulls and strains. A diver with tight, weak back muscles is a gear bag accident waiting to happen. Reduce your injury potential by stretching often because, unlike strength gains from weight training, flexibility gains are easily lost.
Stretch safely. Warm up enough to sweat before you stretch. Then stretch by slowly easing into it then holding. Don’t bounce or you’ll activate your myotatic stretch contraction loop. Micro-injuries can result. Easy does it is better for you than forcing. Forcing stimulates your spindle reflex to give your muscle a shrink, not a stretch.
To avoid posture problems and back pain from unequal stretching, practice safe backs during stretching. Stretch your upper back, lower back and hip in each natural direction. Don’t overweight your back. Substitute sitting and lying back stretches for standing bent over ones. During the rest of the day avoid sitting with a rounded back. Keep the normal inward curve of your lower back.
Protect Your Back During Stretching
- Don’t over-weight your back during stretches
- Substitute sitting or lying back stretches for standing, bent over ones
- Keep the normal inward curve of your lower back
- Don’t push or force back stretches and don’t let anyone help you stretch by pushing or forcing
- Stretch in both directions – if you stretch by leaning forward, then stretch by leaning backward, too
Points For Stretching
- Warm up before you stretch
- Slowly ease into your stretch, then hold
- Don’t bounce
- Easy does it. Stretch in a comfortable range, not forced to the point of pain
- Stretch joints in each natural direction
- Don’t stretch any joint in any unnatural position