Stretching, when done properly, can do more than just increase flexibility. The benefits of stretching can also include enhanced physical fitness, increased mental and physical relaxation, reduced risk of injury, diminished muscle soreness/tension and the development of greater body awareness just to name a few.
Unfortunately, even those who stretch do not always stretch properly and hence do not reap some or all of these benefits. However, by following a few simple rules you can avoid some of the most common mistakes and make the most of your time and muscles!!
TYPES OF STRETCHING
STATIC STRETCHES comfortably elongate a muslce and are typically held for about 30 seconds. They are best for after exercise.
Some examples of static stretches include bending forward and touching your toes (hamstring stretch) or bringing your chin to your chest to stretch the back of your neck.
DYNAMIC STRETCHES involve movements that cause muscles to stretch but are not held. These are best for warming up before exercise.
Some examples of dynamic stretches include making wide circles with your arms before a swim or doing walking lunges before a run.
There are other types of stretching (PNF, AIS, ballistic) but they require more indepth knowledge to be done safely. To explore these options, it’s best to consult a health care professional first.
ELEMENTS OF A GOOD STRETCH
- Warm up! Never stretch cold muscles. Warming up muscles should increase blood flow and core body temperature by 1-2 degrees. I find the best way to warm up muscles before stretching is with a hot shower/bath, gentle joint rotations for the area I want to stretch, low intensity aerobic activity (eg. walk , bike) or gentle self-massage.
- Be Specific. Ideally, a particular stretch should work only the muscles you are trying to stretch. In general, the fewer muscles you try to stretch at once, the better.
- Maximum Leverage. Having leverage during a stretch means having sufficient control over how intense the stretch becomes, and how fast. This gives you greater control and minimizes the risk of injury.
- Minimal Risk. Even an exercise offering great leverage and great isolation may still be a poor choice to perform. Some exercises can simply cause too much stress to the joints and can result in injury. If it can’t be done safely, DON’T DO IT!
- Take Your Time. There exists some controversy over how long a stretch should be held. Most researchers recommend 30-60 seconds which doesn’t sound like long but you would be surprised at how long it feels when you time yourself. If you’re in a rush a minimum of 20 seconds is acceptable. Try counting in your head as you stretch. It will help you stay focused and consistent.
- Don’t Bounce!! Moving while you stretch is fine but jarring the muscle fibres while they’re elongating can easily injure them so keep your adjustments slow and smooth.
- Breathe!! Proper breathing helps to relax the body, increases blood flow to muscles/joints, and helps dial down the signals coming from your nervous system. You should be taking slow, relaxed breaths when you stretch, trying to exhale as the muscle is stretching. The proper way to breathe is to inhale slowly through the nose, expanding the abdomen (not the chest), hold the breath a moment, then exhale slowly through the nose or mouth. There should be no force of the breath.
- No Pain!! Obviously, during a stretch (even when you stretch properly) you are going to feel some amount of discomfort, especially if you haven’t stretched or exercised much in the last few months (the price you pay for being inactive!) However, even well-trained and conditioned athletes who work-out at elevated levels of intensity or difficulty regularly can also experience pain or become sore. The difficulty is being able to discern when it is too much. You should definitely feel the tension in your muscle, and perhaps even light, gradual “pins and needles” as you stretch but if it becomes sudden, sharp, or uncomfortable, or lasts past the following day then you are overdoing it and are probably tearing some muscle tissue (or worse). The key is to PAY ATTENTION! If you learn your body’s signals and listen to them, you’ll never hurt yourself and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your body will adapt and improve.
- Mix it up! Doing the same stretch over and over can be counterproductive because muscles and joints will adapt over time. Changing the way you stretch a muscle will help it maintain tone and flexibility in varying ways so that new activites are less likely to cause injury.
- Don’t try and stretch an acute injury or spasming muscle.
- Chronic injuries don’t always respond to stretching. Consult with a health care professional if you don’t see improvement or if your pain worsens.
- Certain disease presentations and physical limitations can prevent some people from doing a stretch properly. If in doubt, it’s best to consult a health care professional for an individualized and adaptive program.
- If you have hypermobile joints or are pregnant, it will be very easy for you to overstretch. It’s an important part of your self-care but you’ll need to be use extra caution so don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.
To maximize the effectiveness of your stretches, it is important to consider the order of your routine. Stiffness in adjacent muscles will limit the progress with your target muscle. As a general rule, you should usually do the following when putting together a sequence of stretches.
- stretch your back (upper and lower) first
- stretch your back before your sides
- stretch your buttocks before stretching your groin or your hamstrings
- stretch your calves before stretching your hamstrings
- stretch your shins before stretching your quadriceps (thighs)
- stretch your arms before stretching your chest
Lastly, it’s important to remember that consistency is key. It’s unfortunate that stretching once won’t give long-lasting results but it takes months or years to create tight muscles and it will take weeks or months create flexibility. You’ll have to commit to maintaining it but it doesn’t have to be very involved to make a difference and incorporating regular stretching and movement into your daily routine will be worth the effort.