A question we often get asked is how to stretch safely and effectively. Believe it or not, stretching can be quite a controversial topic in some circles.
So, we put together this quick checklist of stretching 'do's' and 'don'ts' to refer to before your next workout.
The TL: DR version? Never stretch to the point of pain, don't bounce as you stretch (unless you have expert supervision) and save static stretches for after your workout.
Stretch throughout your day. Sitting places your joints in extreme angles. This shortens the hip flexors, inactivates the glutes and causes the spine to hunch forward, according to exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton Stretch slowly. Stretching too far, too fast causes your stretch reflex to kick in. This reflex causes your muscle fibers to contract and shorten reflexively to avoid tearing joints and muscles. (AKA: You won’t be able to hold your stretch long enough to get any benefits.) Stretching can improve balance, particularly for those who regularly carry heavy bags on one side. In order to compensate for the weight of the bag, the muscles of the side you carry on can tighten. A regular stretching program can help bring these overworked muscles back into balance. Before a workout, dynamic stretching is more beneficial than static stretching for most athletes. Dynamic stretches are movements that warm up the muscles and increase blood flow. Examples of dynamic stretches are arm circles, leg swings, walking lunges and hip circles. Perform static stretches after your workouts, not before. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research noted that young men who stretched before doing squats decreased their lower-body strength and stability. The optimal length of time to hold a stretch is 30 seconds. No additional benefits have been found in holding stretches longer than 30 seconds. Dynamic stretches require muscle activation and contraction, reducing the risk of injury while increasing the functional benefit.
Never stretch to the point of pain. It’s normal to feel some resistance while you stretch, but stretching past the point of pain is asking for injury. Remember bouncing during static stretches in your high school gym class? Turns out the teacher was wrong. Bouncing during static stretches has fallen out of favour. Experts say bouncing can cause injuries. Static stretching before a workout introduces slack in your muscles. This can decrease the stability you need for strength training, running, cycling and other workouts, according to Michael Silverman, Director of Rehabilitation and Wellness at Northern Westchester Hospital. Increasing flexibility without a corresponding increase in strength can result in joint instability. Focus on increasing overall fitness, not on increasing flexibility alone. Hip flexor and glute muscles stiffen during long periods of sitting. Long periods of sitting and inactivity can significantly impact your mobility. Don’t move straight from your workout into stretching. The rise in body temperature from exercise increases flexiblity. This means you could stretch too far, too fast and risk injury. Cool down for 5-10 minutes with light aerobic activity such as walking before stretching. Don’t forget to breathe as you stretch. Breathing deeply and consciously helps replenish oxygen, increases the effectiveness of your flexibility training, and promotes relaxation.
We hope that you enjoyed this overview of stretching best practices. Stay tuned for more stretching posts coming your way soon!