The two main purposes of stretching are prevention of injury caused by exercise or day-to-day activities and a faster rate of recovery from exercise. Stretching can also be used to improve posture and restore proper anatomical functionality.
A regular stretching program will loosen muscle tissue, allowing an increased range of motion at the joints, which in turn helps prevent microtears at the muscle-tendon junction. Almost 90% of all injuries from muscle strain occur at the muscle-tendon junction (that is, where the muscle attaches to the bone near the joints) and repeated injury at this junction leads to a build up of scar tissue which impedes your range of motion, adding stress on the joints. The sooner waste products from exercise (lactic acid) are removed from the muscle tissue, the sooner the muscle begins to heal. Stretching not only speeds removal of waste but increases the muscle's ability to bring in more nutrients. Keeping the muscles and tendons loose results in an increased range of motion, which helps to maintain the integrity of the joints.
How will I benefit from stretching? Stretching lengthens muscle fibers, extending your range of motion and helping you move with ease, power, and grace. Besides being extremely relaxing, it can relieve some symptoms of conditions such as arthritis. At work, regular stretch breaks help counteract the harmful effects of slouching in front of a computer all day. And keeping muscles pliable makes them less likely to tear during quick or strenuous movements, such as throwing a baseball or lifting a child.
So, benefits of regular stretching include:
- Decreased risk of injury of exercise - Increased range of motion and overall flexibility - Increased rate of recovery from exercise - Increase in strength (studies have shown that after a muscle has been stretched it recruits more fibers to perform a given task) - Faster removal of waste products
How does stretching work? Muscles get sore when their fibers remain partly contracted, from either overuse (such as too many rounds of racquetball) or underuse (too much time in the car). Tight muscles also trigger the body's stress response, which prompts them to tighten even more. By systematically lengthening those fibers, stretching helps ease muscles out of this semicontracted state. That makes it a great way to "cool down" after exercise. And the act of stretching itself builds body awareness: In slowing down to focus on each movement, you become less apt to use your muscles in harmful or inefficient ways.
What kinds of stretches should I do? For flexibility and overall well-being, start with basic stretches that work the major muscle groups. Or look into one of the gentler forms of yoga or tai chi. For optimal fitness and protection against sports injuries, you'll need to combine stretching with strength-building exercises, since the combination helps to prevent imbalances between opposing muscle groups. Adding the right resistance or weight training to your stretching routine will do the trick, of course, but so can some stretching programs. A method called active isolated stretching, for example, uses isometric exercises to alternately contract and stretch each muscle or muscle group. Water exercise, Pilates, power yoga, and Somatics are other, more dynamic ways to add strength building to your routine.
How do I get started? It's often a good idea to spend a session or two with a personal trainer who's knowledgeable about stretching techniques. Or you can teach yourself by turning to an instructional book or video. "Stretching," by Bob Anderson (Shelter Publications), and "Sport Stretch," by Michael Alter (Human Kinetics), are reliable flexibility bibles. "The Whartons' Stretch Book" and "The Runner's World Stretching Video," both by Jim and Phil Wharton, give pointers on active isolated stretching. Whatever you do, start slowly, building your routine as you go.
How hard or far should I stretch? Stretch only to the point where you feel mild muscle tension, not pain. If it hurts, you're doing it wrong. Move into each pose slowly, and exhale as you go. Experts differ on how long to hold a pose. Some argue that after two or three seconds a stretched muscle automatically tightens to guard against tearing -- a stressful sequence that, over time, can lead to tightness, injury, or pain. These experts advise holding a stretch for no more than two seconds to prevent that "snap-back" reflex from kicking in. Others, including Bob Anderson, advise holding a stretch for ten to 30 seconds. Perhaps the best approach is to see what feels best for your body.
Don't bounce as you stretch; that only tightens the muscle you're trying to extend. And try not to stretch "cold": Wait until you've taken a warm shower or moved around a bit.
When and How often should I stretch? Ideally, you should try to set up a daily routine to stretch. Adhering to a consistent stretch program can have a profound impact on how you feel on a day to day basis.
The problem with many traditional stretches is that often the same muscle you are trying to stretch is, at the same time, being used to provide stability and balance. You can't stretch a muscle that is already in use. Most proper stretches should involve a chair, bench or wall to help isolate the target muscle group and keep your balance. By offering a base of support, the muscle group can be completely relaxed before the stretch.
Frequency: Try to stretch every day; start doing each stretch once and build up to doing each stretch 3 times
Intensity: Light pressure, about 30-40% of max
Duration: Hold each stretch between 10 to 60 seconds depending on your current flexibility, conditioning, and time. Start slow and gradually build up the time you hold a static stretch.
If you are unable to stretch on a daily basis, a post-workout stretch is necessary. Or, as I advice my clients, incorporate stretches DURING your workouts . Typically, that means stretching the bodypart that has just been exercised. For example, if you just did a set of bicep curls, follow it up with a bicep stretch. Or, if you're doing multiple sets, stretch the bicep after the first set. This is a very time efficient way to incorporate stretching and to ensure you're getting maximum benefit.
Matt is a certified fitness trainer through the International Sports Sciences Association, author of numerous health and fitness related articles, an entrepreneur, and investor and co-founder of the popular DeepFitness.com website.