As workout popularity has surged around HIIT and strength training, flexibility work may be getting overlooked. While stretching may not be the most exciting part of exercise, it definitely is important. Just like cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength, flexibility is a key component of fitness – and it will gradually deteriorate as you age if neglected.
Stretching helps improve elasticity in the muscles, tendons and ligaments, which can improve mobility and range of motion and alleviate tightness, soreness or kinks. When you exercise, the muscles repeatedly contract and shorten; by lengthening them through stretching, you help preserve muscular health.
Plus, in a world where many of us are too sedentary, stretching stimulates circulation to muscles and simply feels good. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends stretching the major muscle groups at least two times a week for approximately 60 seconds per exercise.
However, because misinformation still surrounds flexibility, here we set the record straight with what to know about stretching and the benefits of stretching.
Benefits of Stretching
Although studies have had mixed results about the benefits of stretching, it is commonly accepted that greater flexibility may:
- Improve performance in physical activities and sports
- Decrease risk of injuries
- Enable muscles to work more effectively
- Improve posture and coordination
- Offer stress relief
When to Stretch
The good news is that you can stretch anytime, such as in the morning, after workouts, midday at the office, before bedtime or even when you’re binging on Netflix. If you’re just waking up, try gentle, slow stretches, or even easy range-of-motion movements because your muscles are tight after sleeping. Don’t bounce or force stretches to the point of pain.
While formerly it was recommended to stretch prior to exercise, today that’s not a hard and fast rule. Experts now say not to perform static stretches on cold muscles, but instead to first warm-up by walking, jogging or leisurely biking. You can stretch after the warm-up, or even better, after your entire workout, when muscles are much more pliable.
Post-workout is a great time to stretch to help reduce muscular tension, relax and feel better. Even a few short minutes is better than not stretching at all.
How to Stretch
Like any type of exercise, it’s important to stretch safely so you don’t hurt yourself. The Mayo Clinic recommends:
- Focus on major muscle groups – Hit the chest, upper and lower back, neck and shoulders, lower back, hips and glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.If you play a sport, make sure you address the muscles you use most often in performance.
- Shoot for symmetry – Work to have equal flexibility on each side of your body to lower risk of injury.
- Don’t bounce – Hold stretches steady for 10-60 seconds. Bouncing can cause tears that injure muscles and contribute to tightness.
- Aim for tension, not pain – Stretching tight muscles certainly can cause discomfort, but you don’t want pain. If it hurts, release the stretch to where you don’t feel any pain, then hold.
- Breathe – Don’t hold your breath when stretching, but breathe naturally and relax.
- Be consistent – To get the most benefits from stretching, it must be part of your regular routine, and at least 2-3 times weekly. If you routinely are skipping stretch sessions, try yoga or take a flexibility class for greater adherence.
Hold off on Stretching
Obviously, the benefits of stretching are many. But there are times when you should not perform flexibility exercises, such as when you have muscle strains, which require rest; or joint sprains, which also need to heal. If you break a bone, don’t stretch the muscles that surround the fracture until your doctor indicates that it’s safe.