Whether you do cardio or lift weights, play sport or go to group exercise classes, stretching is something you should probably do more of. In this article, we’ll lift the lid on stretching so you can learn how to get the most benefits from this important fitness component.
Who Needs To Stretch?
Stretching is good for everybody’s body! Athletes looking to improve performance, ward off injury, and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness should devote time to stretching especially if they care about the longevity of their competitive careers.
Office warriors, who spend most of their day sat down, should stretch to offset the injurious stress that being seated places on the body. Sitting down all day is arguably one of the worst things you can do to your body which frequently results in tight hamstrings, hip flexors, pecs and abs which can lead to terrible posture, back and neck pain and numerous other physical maladies.
Older people should stretch to try and regain their youthful flexibility so they can move more easily and keep their muscles feeling as young as possible. At the opposite end of the aging spectrum, younger people should stretch to maintain their natural flexibility levels which are prone to declining with age.
You should stretch before embarking on any kind of strenuous physical activity and then, once you are done, stretch again to help prevent any exercise-induced adaptive shortening.
So, who should stretch is actually an easy question to answer: everybody should stretch!
Stretching For Better Flexibility
To develop your flexibility, the range of movement possible at a joint or joints, you need to hold the stretched position, called the point of bind, for at least 30 seconds and maybe as long as 120-180 seconds. This means you need to be comfortable and be in a position that allows you to relax. If the position in which you are stretching results in a buildup of tension in any other part of your body, you are much less likely to enjoy the benefits of stretching and get the results you seek.
As sitting for long periods of time is one of the worst things you can do your flexibility, it makes sense that just about everyone should perform stretches to target the muscles that become short and tight as a result of this activity. The muscles that become tight because of sitting are, from the bottom up, the calves, the hamstrings, the hip flexors, the abs, and the chest. Time spent stretching these muscles can undo many of the problems associated with long periods of sitting.
As for the best stretches? That really depends on your current level of flexibility and how an exercise feels. If you can feel the stretch in the target muscle, are comfortable enough to be able to hold the stretch for the designated period of time and don’t get any untoward aches and pains in other, non-associated, parts of your body, the stretch you have chosen is probably the right stretch for you.
Best Time To Stretch?
Theoretically, you can stretch just about any time you want but if you want to get the most from your flexibility training, there are a number of “windows of opportunity”.
Before exercise – stretching before exercise is a somewhat controversial subject as some experts believe that stretching, particularly static stretches, reduce the contractility or strength of your muscles. Obviously if you are trying to set a record in the bench press then this is advice you should heed.
However, if you are about to go for a two-mile walk or jog, it probably isn’t something you need to worry about too much. That being said, most authorities on stretching recommend dynamic stretches over static stretches for the purpose of warming up as they tend not to decrease force production potential.
After exercise – once your workout is complete, stretching can help reduce adaptive shortening and ensure that your muscles return to their pre-workout resting length. This may or may not reduce post-exercise muscle soreness; the jury is still out on that one! Static stretches are the modality of choice for the cool down as relaxation in the post-exercise period may speed up recovery.
Whenever your muscles are sufficiently warm – if you are serious about improving your flexibility, you may want to stretch more often, maybe a couple of times a day, and especially after periods of inactivity. If you are going to do this, make sure you spend a couple of minutes warming your muscles up as cold muscles are not very receptive to stretching. Not only that, a cold muscle is easier to injure than a warm one. Some marching on the spot will be sufficient, there is no need to turn your warm up into a workout.
Common Stretching Mistakes
To get the most from your stretching, you need to follow a few rules. Failure to observe these rules can result in little or no progress or worse; an injury. These are the most common stretching mistakes that people tend to make…
Stretching too infrequently – you need to stretch often if you want to increase your flexibility. Once a day is good, twice or three times a day is better. Couple of minutes after your thrice-weekly workout is not enough for most people. Focus on the muscles that are tight and hold those stretches for longer. For the muscles that feel okay, hold the stretches for just a few seconds.
Stretching when cold – cold muscles do not stretch well and are likely to become injured. Increase the blood flow through and the temperature of your muscles by performing a few minutes of light cardio before stretching.
Failing to increase the depth of the stretch – once you go into a stretch, you soon reach something called the point of bind, POB for short. The POB is your limit of flexibility at that time. However, if you wait 15 seconds or so, your muscles will relax and you’ll be able to ease into a new POB. By waiting out the POB and gradually deepening your stretch, you will see far better results from your stretching.
Bouncing while stretching – bouncing stretches, called ballistic stretches, are very old-school and are quite dangerous. While they may be necessary for some sports like gymnastics and kickboxing, for the average keep-fit enthusiast, the risk far outweighs the benefits. Just because you see your favorite sports personality doing jerky, bouncy stretches doesn’t mean you should. Ease in and out of your stretches gradually to minimize your risk of injury.
Not stretching at all – many people fail to stretch often enough or even at all. It’s no wonder that many of us, even those who exercise, have tight muscles! Stretching might not be high on your list of priorities, especially after a butt-kicking workout that has left you tired, sweaty and hungry, but a few minutes spent stretching can be the difference between being able to come back and battle the bulge again tomorrow or spending the next few weeks on a sports therapists couch because of an otherwise avoidable injury. Bottom line: make time to stretch or make time to be injured.
Stretching isn’t the most glamorous workout or the most exciting but for longevity and performance, it’s all but essential. Make sure you do your stretches every day!