Why Stretching Is Good For You
The most basic answer to this firstly is, stretching encourages movement and we all know the importance of moving. We, as human beings were built to move and unfortunately in today’s society everything we do seems to put our bodies in prolonged positions creating joint stiffness, muscular tension and postural imbalances. It also plays a really important part in keeping our joints healthy. How? When you stretch, the muscle fibers are pulled out to its full length.
7 Reasons That Substantiate The Importance Of Stretching
Stretching helps maintain good muscle health. But what does this even mean? What you may not realise is that stretching does a whole lot more than just elongating muscle fibres (sorry, just a fancy way of saying ‘stretching the muscle’).
Stretching enhances our physical fitness, enhances our ability to learn and perform skilled movements, increases mental and physical relaxation, enhances the development of body awareness, reduces the risk of injury to muscle, tendons and joints, (we’ll get back to this) and increases suppleness due to the stimulation of the production of chemicals which lubricate connective tissue.
Phew, that was a lot to get out.
1. Stretching Improves Neuromuscular Control Assisting In Injury Prevention
Firstly, what is it? Neuromuscular control is the ability of the nervous system to employ the correct muscles and force that are required to execute a specific movement goal.
Why is this important?
If you have neuromuscular deficiencies, (for example you lack balance), this can predispose you to injury.
2. Enhances Body Awareness
To stretch your body effectively requires you to be in the present moment. This prevents you from over-stretching and causing injury.
The great thing about stretching is when you feel the stretch (discomfort of varying degrees depending on your goal), you become aware of specific tensions throughout structures and how to breathe and relax into them, encouraging your body to switch from a sympathetic response into the parasympathetic nervous system.
This awareness becomes transferable into different areas; whether you are in the gym working on your strength or climbing a ladder to trim the tree branch hanging over your fence that your neighbour let get too wild!
How does it transfer? Well, it comes back to the body awareness you acquire when stretching and understanding your flexibility limits, tissue tension, and strength in those ranges.
3. Improves Performance…
SO much controversy around this one!
So let me put it this way. It CAN improve performance ONLY when you program according to your specific sport AND outcomes desired. A gymnast will stretch differently from a bodybuilder because their goals are completely different.
So whilst I believe stretching can improve performance, it can also hinder performance if programmed incorrectly.
4. Improves Wellbeing and Function Later in Life
It’s no secret that as we age we lose strength and flexibility. You know the saying, “use it or lose’, well it’s certainly the case as we get older.
Performing flexibility training and strength training exercises, can offset the loss of flexibility in our joints and decrease the rate of falls and injuries in our later years.
5. Improve Flexibility
Flexibility is really important for performance and joint health but I really couldn’t say it any better so I’m going to leave you with this incredibly articulate quote from flexibility researcher Dan Van Zandt;
“The fact that flexibility is the ability of a joint or group of joints to change position has significant implications for all biomotor abilities. The phrase “biomotor abilities” refers to the body’s various capacities that contribute to its ability to move.
A simple way to think about them is that they are the components of physical fitness but viewed from a motor neuroscience perspective. They include strength, endurance, speed, agility, and coordination.”
Check out his article here.
6. Improves Breathing Mechanics
Such a brilliant and underestimated way of improving your breathing is through stretching.
The reason is this; in order to move through and relax into a stretch, you need to adopt a calm and controlled inhale and exhale, utilising the diaphragm at its best potential.
Learning to breathe in this way enhances your ability to stretch deeper and for longer as you have better control of the nervous system when you are better able to control your breath.
7. Provides Relaxation and Time Out For the Body and Mind
I feel like this could be the most overlooked reason, yet it is just as important as all the previous reasons.
So much of our time is consumed by external sources and rarely do we get a chance to sit with ourselves to recharge and recover. Any elite sporting team or mental health practitioner will tell you how important rest and recovery is for all aspects of our wellbeing.
So when you give yourself the time to stretch, breathe, and become in tune with your body, you’re also giving yourself the mental rest and physical nurturing your body needs to recharge. (Unless of course your stretch program is based on the sports program, then it may not be completely relaxing)
Nonetheless, it is time when you get to tune into your body, mind, and breath.
Getting Started On A Basic Stretching Routine
Firstly, the great thing about stretching is that anyone can do it, anytime, no matter your fitness level and flexibility. There are literally little to no barriers in starting a stretching routine. All you need is yourself and a carpeted room. (See, you don’t even need a mat if you don’t have one!)
There are some great beginner stretching routines on YouTube you can find, or if you are someone who knows exactly what you want to stretch or improve on, then you can find specific stretching routines for the specific areas you are interested in.
For example, you may find yourself sitting at a desk all day and your hip flexors and low back feel tight, you can start with stretches that target those areas.
The key to starting a stretch routine is to keep it simple and consistent.
Research shows that stretching for 10 minutes at least 3 times a week, is where you’ll see and feel the benefits.
Need a little extra guidance on how to incorporate it into your routine?
- On days you exercise:
10 minutes of dynamic stretching (leg swings, side bends/twists) before your activity. If you feel extra tension, studies show that static stretching for up to 60 seconds on each muscle group followed by dynamic stretches will help release tension with no loss in performance.
After your workout, do another 5 to 10 minutes of static stretching or PNF stretching
- On days you don’t exercise:
Make sure you schedule at least ten minutes for stretching, targeting any areas that feel tight from training or stress and tension.
Dedicate 20 to 30 minutes of full-body stretching and spending up to 60 seconds per muscle group.
- When stretching:
It’s important to incorporate breathwork that will enhance your stretching. If the stretch becomes too intense and you start to tense up and hold your breath, you have gone too far and will not receive the benefit of the stretch. So make sure you are able to breathe calmly throughout each stretch.
Put your ego aside! Whilst it’s nice when the stretch feels easy and relaxing to do, don’t neglect the areas that feel tight and are harder to sit through. Use your breath to slowly work into the stretch.
Want extra comfort and support? Use blocks, bolsters, blankets, or pillows to rest and lean on. It will help to support the body and assist in preventing the apprehension reflex kicking in, helping you to relax and get more out of the stretch.
Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds and don’t bounce.
Know What Stretching Technique Is Right For You
Whilst there are a multitude of ways to stretch, finding what works for you is key. There is no doubt you would have heard the terms static and dynamic stretching. And whilst I could write a full list of other types of stretching, I’m going to mention another two types of stretching that are my favourite and explain them all below.
- Static Stretches
Do these stretches to increase flexibility, calm the mind and body, and enhance body awareness and breath. Using breathwork can stimulate the vagus nerve, which can have positive calming effects on the nervous system.
- Dynamic Stretches
Do dynamic stretching before exercise to prepare the muscles for activity
- Active Stretching
Do active stretching to increase flexibility and joint integrity. It is a great way to increase flexibility and strengthen the muscles and tendons of the joint. This is a more intense way to stretch but can provide faster results when done consistently.
An example of active stretching would be a standing straddle stretch. Standing with your legs as far apart as you can comfortably manage. This will stretch your inner thighs,and strengthen your outer thighs and quads.
When To Stretch
Stretching is important, there is no doubt about it. But it’s so common to hear it’s no good, or it’s bad for you, or it has a negative effect on performance etc.
The problem is, these statements give little to no context.
Static stretching for 2 minutes per muscle group before activity probably will have a negative impact on performance (unless flexibility is crucial to your performance), and I certainly wouldn’t recommend stretching if you’ve just injured yourself.
So here is some guidance on when you SHOULD stretch and when you SHOULDN’T stretch.
Do Stretch After Strenuous Exercise
Stretching is a great way to calm the nervous system, lengthen muscles that have been overworked, and encourage blood flow to the stretched areas, bringing oxygen and nutrients needed for optimal recovery.
Do Stretch When Sitting For Long Periods
You should stretch If your muscles are in a lengthened or shortened position due to bad posture.
Take the pectorals and rhomboids for example. If the shoulders round forward, the pectorals are shortened and the rhomboids are passively lengthened.
These muscles are no longer resting in their normal position, which produces hypertonicity (involuntary partial contraction within the muscle). We must stretch the shortened muscles (pectorals) and strengthen the lengthened muscles (rhomboids, lower trapezius) to reverse the rounded shoulder position.
- Anytime You Feel Tightness In Your Body
This is your body’s way of communicating with you. Listen to it! Relax and stretch.
Do Stretch When You Train Heavily
If you are someone who trains heavily, then your muscles are going to get used to one of two things (or maybe even both).
- Minimal range of motion from doing a specific repetitive activity (i.e., running/ cycling)
Activities like running and cycling take your muscles through a specific range of motion. During both activities, your joints are not moving through their entire range. And rightly so. You’d have a funny looking gait if you did!
So over time, our muscles tighten in a way that allows us to use this range only. Now some would argue that this causes rigidity within the muscles, in turn, making our movements efficient due to the bounce-back reaction time, thus helping us go faster.
This can be a good thing if running is all you are doing and your muscles are in good condition (no pain or trigger points) and your running technique is flawless. Then go for it.
But in the long run (yes I mean long term, big picture, not just a long run… but you see why I had to use the pun!), by restricting your range of motion, and as you get older, your joints start to stiffen and collagen fibres start to increase over your elastic connective tissue.
Meaning we lose the range of motion that our joints should actually be able to perform. With a loss of range of motion, compensatory patterns start to develop and we start to experience further imbalances, pain, and possible injury.
- Repetitive contraction under heavy load (e.g. lifting weights)
Intense muscular contraction under load (lifting weights) is important to our muscular development and bone density. Again, whilst under heavy load, our muscles aren’t taken through their entire range. If the muscle groups worked are not stretched afterwards, the muscle will retain this decreased range of motion.
When NOT to Stretch
Stretching is not always the answer. Whilst it would make life easier if it were, it’s just not the case.
So here are a few things to keep in mind.
- If You Have An Acute Inflammation/ Injury
During the first 72 hours of an injury, it’s important to avoid stretching and let the inflammation and swelling run its course.
- If You Are Going To Perform An Activity
It is common to hear “no stretching before an activity”. This generally refers to static stretching, which relaxes the muscles, so yes generally speaking we do not want to perform static stretches for too long before activity.
Research shows that performing stretches for up to 60 seconds will have no negative impact on your performance as once thought.
For a thorough warm up, we want to excite the muscles with dynamic stretching and getting the blood circulating and prepared for the activity that will be undertaken.
- If You Have A Chronic Or Nagging Injury
It is always important to seek professional help if an injury does not improve and stretching has not been beneficial.
Importance Of Timing During Stretching
We are generally taught to hold a stretch for a particular length of time when, in all honesty, we can’t have a “one size fits all” approach. Everybody is different and requires their own unique attention. Make it a habit to listen to your body and try taking this approach.
Firstly, set up your position for the targeted muscle group to be stretched. Slowly start to move into the stretch. The goal is to relax the targeted muscle or muscle group throughout the stretch. This is what determines the timing of the stretch. Until the tension in the muscle group starts to ease.
Studies show that whilst stretching for long periods (anywhere from 60 seconds to 5 minutes), can be beneficial in the moment, it does not have long-lasting results.
What does provide long-lasting results is consistency. Stretching for 30 seconds on each muscle group up to 3 times a week, is shown to be the most beneficial in improving flexibility
- Positioning And Loading Errors
Improper positioning will firstly prevent the full benefit of a stretch to the specific muscle group. Secondly, it can load other structures, causing injury.
For example, when stretching the hamstrings, it is common to see a standing forward fold.
The problem with this stretch is that if you are inflexible, you may be folding forward from the spine with a posterior tilt in the pelvis instead of hinging at the hips, which places too much pressure through the lower back.
When doing static stretches it is important to get in a comfortable position.
For a hamstring stretch, we encourage you to sit with your legs straight in front of you. If you cannot sit tall on your sit bones, place a blanket or pillow under your bottom until you are able to sit nice and tall.
A slight bend in the knees is fine to begin with. From the hips, slowly bend forward keeping a long straight spine. This will eliminate pressure in the lower back.
Overstretching will cause microscopic tears in the muscle. When stretching, it is important to be aware of what you are feeling. A “general rule” is if you feel a ‘stretch pain’ and you are able to relax and breathe normally then this is a good position.
If it’s too painful to relax and you start to hold your breath, then you have gone too far and must back out of the stretch.
Want to learn more about stretching?
Listen to Bodies Built Better podcast episode on stretching and flexibility.