Muscles only know how to do one thing: they know how to TRY to contract. All muscles cross over a joint (or two) and if they are successful in creating a contraction the joint moves.
For example, one of your calf muscles (also known as the gastrocnemius muscle) attaches on the back part of your femur just above the knee and goes down to the heel where it becomes part of the Achilles tendon. When this muscle is contracted, it does knee flexion (bends the knee) and plantar flexion at the ankle (pointing your toes down towards the floor).
Stretched muscles are longer muscles and longer muscles create more room to move within a joint. Longer muscles also have greater contractile strength. If you are a runner and stretch regularly, not only will your strides be longer but also each stride will have greater strength at toe-off.
Stretching helps to prevent injuries. The more flexibility a joint has the greater range it has to move before injury occurs. Stretching also allows for muscles to release tension. When muscles are tense, they contract or shorten, making them more susceptible to injury.
Stretching is something that can be done on your own or with the help of a partner. Massage therapists will sometimes incorporate stretching into a treatment. With orthopedic testing, a massage therapist can detect if your joints are not moving through their full range of motion due to short and tight muscles.
A good fitness regime incorporates stretching as well as strengthening. A trained professional will be able to detect when muscles should NOT be stretched.
Muscles that are acutely injured or in spasm should never be stretched as this can lead to further injury. Stretching muscles that are long and weak only makes them longer and weaker. In such situations these muscles need to be strengthened rather than stretched.
Make sure you get advice on when and how to stretch properly to avoid injuries.
Catherine Taman is a Registered Massage Therapist practicing in Toronto, Canada. She has a special interest in treating chronic pain, headaches, sports injuries and pregnancy related pain. To book an appointment with Catherine, visit rmtmassagetherapytoronto