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Effective Stretching and how to help clients maximize stretching benefits
“I’ve always wanted to ask you what the stretching at the end of class accomplishes,” your client says. “I’m asking because that’s the only time I ever stretch, and I’m hoping it’s enough. Does five or 10 minutes of stretching two or three times a week really make any difference? What is the best way for Effective Stretching: Helping Clients Maximize Stretching Benefits? I’ve been taking your class for several months now, and I certainly have more stamina and strength, but I haven’t really gotten any more flexible. Should I be seeing any progress in this area?”
We include stretching in our group exercise classes and in the exercise recommendations we make to our clients because we know that regular stretching promotes healthy muscles and joints. Increasing, or at least maintaining, the elasticity of muscles and connective tissue around a joint maximizes its function. Adequate flexibility, a term that refers to a joint’s range of motion, makes moving easier and more fun.
Many of us stretch, and urge our clients to stretch, to avoid the stiffness and loss of mobility that gradually sets in as we age. We have all seen the harm of too little flexibility, including poor posture, muscle aches and pains, and limited and painful movement. Feeling stiff and uncomfortable is debilitating.
We stretch for other reasons as well. By keeping muscles and joints healthy, we hope to reduce risk of injury. Also, stretching feels good and helps to relax tense muscles, an all-too-common problem for people who are sedentary and under stress. Stretching exercises are often a component of therapeutic exercise prescribed by a physical therapist.
How much is enough?
The right amount of stretching to perform depends on how much flexibility you need and your reasons for stretching. Obviously, athletes such as gymnasts and dancers whose activities demand great flexibility will spend a lot of time stretching. People recovering from injury may stretch several times a day to recover joint mobility and function. What about the “average adult” interested in maintaining an adequate level of flexibility for the activities of daily living?
How much flexibility do we really need? General guidelines recommend 10 to 20 minutes of stretching at least three times a week. More important than quantity of time spent stretching is the quality with which the stretching exercises are performed.
Making the most of stretching
Visit almost any group-exercise class or weight room, and you will see a range of stretching effectiveness. Some people appear to be tense, rigid and hunched up, forcing a stretching position that is uncomfortable, their muscles tightening up in protest. Others sink into a stretching position with the relaxation of a cat basking in the morning sun. You can almost hear their muscles purring with appreciation. Learn more about stretching and it’s benefits. As a group-exercise leader or personal trainer, you can help clients learn the physical and mental skills that will help them maximize the benefits of their stretching program, whether that program is five minutes at the end of class, or a more dedicated program of regular flexibility training.
Put safety first. All personal trainers and exercise instructors must know which stretching exercises should be avoided with beginners, and stick with stretching positions that pose the least risk of injury. Stretching should not be performed on injured, inflamed or unstable joints. Attempting to stretch muscles in spasm or injured joints will only cause pain and prolong the healing process. Clients with arthritis, osteoporosis or any type of injury should work with guidance from a physical therapist.
Appropriate effective stretching exercises
Choose stretching exercises that suit your client or group. Static stretching is generally best for beginning group-exercise classes. Correct body positioning must be mastered before more sophisticated techniques are applied. Other stretches that work for beginners incorporate contract-relax, or contract-relax with agonist contraction techniques (see references at the end of this article for more information). Such techniques take advantage of muscle and joint reflexes that encourage the muscle group being stretched to relax.
Partner-assisted stretches in a group situation are usually not a good idea. People short on time may not want to “waste” time assisting a partner. Also, many people don’t like to be touched by people they don’t know and, in some cases, partners could even cause injury by applying too much force.
Teach awareness. Any effective stretching position can cause injury if overdone. Teach clients to listen to their bodies, and take responsibility for their own safety. Everyone can learn to feel the difference between stretching and straining. Encourage mental relaxation. Relaxation is the opposite of tension. When the mind relaxes, the body relaxes as well. Use soothing music and verbal cues. Urge clients to stretch slowly and exhale gently at maximal stretch. Help them focus on smooth breathing and relaxation imagery.
Emphasize individual progress. Effective stretching: Helping clients maximize stretching benefits. Try to create an atmosphere that avoids comparison and competition. Individual progress is what counts. Help clients understand that increasing flexibility can be a slow process.
Group exercise classes
Stretching tends to get short shrift in group (and individual) exercise classes. It lags in popularity behind its more popular cousins, cardiovascular exercise and strength training. When time is limited, people set priorities. A good dose of cardiovascular exercise can save lives: strength training can keep people young. Flexibility can improve somewhat with both, so exercisers squeeze in a few stretches around the edges. How much can be done in a one-hour class?
Your reply to the client in the opening paragraph might be to explain that the stretching performed in class is a bare minimum, done to prevent injury and muscle tightness. Increases in flexibility are seldom seen with this small amount of stretching. To increase flexibility, clients should perform another 10 minutes or so of stretching after each class, or several more 10- to 20-minute sessions each week on their own.
Some exercise forms, such as hatha yoga, the martial arts and tai chi, put a great deal more emphasis on stretching and the mental benefits of performing movement in a slow and focused manner. These types of exercise are growing in popularity. Many group exercise leaders are adding variety and more flexibility training to their workouts with movements from these exercise forms.