Failure to warm-up properly is the biggest single cause of sports injury. If you don’t warm up before exercise, the muscles are likely to tear. Stretching is done for one of two reasons- either as part of a warm-up to avoid soft tissue injuries during high intensity exercise, or to increase flexibility.
One thing stretching does not do is warm up your muscles. Warming up refers to raising your body temperature and increasing circulation to get blood flowing into your muscle tissue. Since maintaining good circulation is an important component of injury prevention, you should warm up before any workout and before starting to massage.
To warm up, do five minutes of aerobic exercise like brisk walking, running in place or skipping rope. For your stretches to be effective and safe, do them after you have warmed up. Stretching before warming up can cause injury, since cold muscle tissue is more likely to tear.
Never stretch a cold muscle– always make sure your muscles are warm before stretching. When a muscle is properly warmed-up it is better able to become elastic and relaxes more easily; warming up also circulates blood to nearby tissues and helps remove unwanted waste products from your system.
The danger when exercising without stretching is that the length of your individual muscle fibres become shortened by repetitive use and fatigue. Over time this muscle shortening may cause imbalances that can lead to ligament damage, joint hyper mobility and loss of function and power. Stretching helps to prevent this shortening of your muscle fibres and helps to prevent injuries.
Cool downs are necessary because a degree of muscle shortening occurs during activities like running, cycling and rowing, for example. In Cool downs, stretches should be held in the same way as in your warming up routine so as to leave the muscles in a relaxed state.
In my massage practice I use a stretching technique called muscle energy techniques. Simply put muscle energy techniques are where the client is asked to use a muscle group against a resisted force exerted by the practitioner. The client is then asked to relax and stop using the muscle group. It is at this point the practitioner stretches the muscle group as it momentarily relaxes. For me as a practitioner and you as a client this technique is fantastic because it increases the length of the muscle considerably more than you would be able to do by yourself or by me doing a normal stretch.