By Eric Astrauskas, Spec. Hons. B.A. (Kinesiology), P.T.S.
Joint range of movement is important for optimal health and avoiding injuries due to muscular tightness. Flexibility is also an essential component of fitness for most sports. A person may damage their muscles, tendons, and ligaments with any sudden stretch beyond a muscle's resting length if they have poor flexibility.
Stretching programs improve flexibility but there are other benefits. Some of these include; stress relief (through proper breathing and release of tension), enhanced blood flow and nutrient absorption, strength gains, and improvement in athletic movements.
Before beginning a stretching session, be sure you have warmed up the muscles that will be worked on. Dynamic, moving stretching, or preparative stretching, should be performed before strength training to warm up your muscles. Dynamic stretching includes movements such as arm circles, leg swings, torso twists. You do not want to perform static stretching before strength training. If you are going to do flexibility training on a non-training day, perform a few minutes of skipping to help warm up the muscles and promote better blood flow.
Static stretching (especially PNF or proprioceptive neurofacilitation) is the most effective way to stretch a muscle to improve flexibility. This is done using the contract/relax method and is usually partner-assisted. For this method, first you stretch a muscle to its limit without feeling pain. At this point, you contract the muscle for a few seconds, while holding your breath. Then you exhale and relax into a deeper stretch. An example of this is a partner-assisted hamstring stretch. Lying on your back, your partner brings up one of your legs to 90 degrees or to a level where you feel the stretch/tension. At this point you hold, then try to fight resistance provided by your partner for a few seconds. You then relax and exhale as your partner will be able to deepen the stretch without discomfort.
If you want to know how to stretch every muscle using PNF techniques, I recommend exercise physiologist Pavel Tstatouline's Relax into Stretch. A few other great books by authorities on flexibility include; Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg, Stretch to Win by Ann and Christopher Frederick, and Facilitated Stretching by Robert McAtee and Jeff Charland.
Poor flexibility, and muscle tightness, and trigger point pain, from activity, inactivity, or injury, can be caused by tightness in the fascia that covers the muscle. This web-like structure becomes tangled. Sometimes stretching will not solve this issue. However, tissue massage is effective. My favourite self-massage tools include; Trigger Point Performance Therapy Kit, Rumble Roller foam roller (the black one is harder than the blue and provides a deeper massage), and the Acuball (the mini version targets knots precisely). Go here to watch some videos on how to foam roll every muscle group.
Here are some reference materials self-myofascial massage that I highly recommend:
The Foam Rolling Bible , Total Foam Rolling Techniques , Foam Roller Workbook