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Stretching exercises after a workout are so easy to forget or push aside outside of a group setting. Our agonistic muscles–the muscles we contract to drive our exercises–can become tight after repeated or sustained contractions during exercises. Neglecting to stretch them out afterwards can help contribute to muscle knots. These increasingly tight areas can potentially lead to a greater risk of injury, not to mention a decrease in flexibility.
Keep in mind that these stretching exercises function best when done after a workout, rather than before. Static stretches can impede performance for the short-term before a workout. The extended muscle fibers will not be at an optimal point for contract, causing a lesser force output. These stretches eclipse dynamic stretches in terms of the range of motion they generate both for the short and long term (O’Sullivan et al. 2009). To summarize, static stretches contribute well to your overall flexibility and are advised to be performed after a workout.
Our Cary physical therapists’ work with injury prevention has helped generate a few exercises below to bolster your range of motion while learning new and challenging stretches to differentiate between some muscles you don’t always think about in your legs.
This is a stretch many people are familiar with, especially if they’ve ever been in a group exercise setting. Every high school sport you might have interacted with would’ve had this stretch in their cooldown. There’s a good reason for this; it reduces the risk of injury in your lower extremities as a result of the increased flexibility and range of motion (Hartig & Henderson 1999). A study on military trainees noted a high incidence of lower extremity injury reducing training efficiency (Hartig & Henderson 1999). Many of the trainees were shown to have some significant tightness in the hamstrings (Hartig & Henderson 1999). An experiment was designed to provide simple hamstring stretches to an experiment group, while letting a control group continue on as normal (Hartig & Henderson 1999). The group that performed the stretches experienced a lower incidence of lower extremity injury (Hartig & Henderson 1999). That’s not to say the hamstrings themselves were resistant to injury as a result of stretching; rather, the lack of tightness likely resulted in better body mechanics in the lower extremities, reducing the possibility of injury. The stretch demonstrated is a version very similar to the hamstring stretch used in the study, helping to improve hamstring flexibility by targeting the stretch over the hip and knee joints.
The muscles that drive plantar flexion, or your muscles that help push your foot down when walking, running, jumping, etc., primarily consist of two major muscles in the calf. First is the gastrocnemius, a big, bulky, two-headed muscle that acts like the biceps of the lower leg. Second is the soleus, which lies underneath the gastrocnemius, and assists the gastrocnemius in its functions. There’s also a third muscle, known as the plantaris, which runs behind both of these muscles. Interestingly, this muscle is largely vestigial (evolutionarily, it no longer has much of a function) and is even absent in a portion of the population (Dixon 2009). The difference between the two major groups is that the gastrocnemius spans over both the knee and ankle joints as a 2-joint muscle (Dixon 2009). The soleus on the other hand only crosses the ankle joint (Dixon 2009). So, to be complete in your calf stretching, it’s best to stretch in the following two ways to focus on either muscle.
The pigeon stretch is an intense stretch focusing on the hip joint that benefits a couple of major muscle groups that are often overlooked in common group-stretching exercises: the hip flexors and hip extensors. Your hip flexors consist primarily of a deep group of muscles called the iliopsoas, and the more noticeable muscle at the front of your hip, the rectus femoris (the only “quad” muscle that crosses the hip joint). Your hip extensors are made up of several muscles. Targeted in this stretch are the glute muscles including the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus (see our other article “4 Quick and Easy Exercises to Stabilize Your Core” for a refresher on these muscles). These muscles are absolutely essential to any exercise your legs are performing, especially in walking and running. When they tighten up, the hip flexors especially can lead to an all too common complaint of lower back pain. According to a study checking for the association of lower back pain to muscle tightness and strength in various groups, lower back pain was found to be correlated only with tightness of the hip flexors as compared to other muscle groups (Kujala et al. 1992). If you think your muscles are tight and may even be contributing to pain, consider scheduling a mobility screening to catch issues before they become chronic. Keep those muscles long and languid!
We hope these exercises not only help you understand the benefits of stretching, but also provide some interesting new stretches for your cooldown. As always, look forward to future articles with exercises in other areas to add to your routine! If you’d like to learn more about the best approach to exercise for you, click here to contact one of our specialists or schedule a fitness consultation.
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Bryan Dixon, J. “Gastrocnemius vs. Soleus Strain: How to Differentiate and Deal with Calf Muscle Injuries.” Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine 2, no. 2 (May 23, 2009): 74–77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12178-009-9045-8.
Hartig, Donald E., and John M. Henderson. “Increasing Hamstring Flexibility Decreases Lower Extremity Overuse Injuries in Military Basic Trainees.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine 27, no. 2 (March 1, 1999): 173–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/03635465990270021001.
KUJALA, URHO M., JOUKO J. SALMINEN, SIMO TAIMELA, AIRI OKSANEN, and LAURA JAAKKOLA. “Subject Characteristics and Low Back Pain in Young Athletes and Nonathletes.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 24, no. 6 (June 1, 1992): 627–32. https://doi.org/10.1249/00005768-199206000-00003.
O’Sullivan, Kieran, Elaine Murray, and David Sainsbury. “The Effect of Warm-up, Static Stretching and Dynamic Stretching on Hamstring Flexibility in Previously Injured Subjects.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 10, no. 1 (April 16, 2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-10-37.