The Why’s and How’s of Stretching
Stretching is as important as any other part of your health and fitness plan. Without flexibility training, you’re missing a necessary part of your workout.
“Stretching is one area of fitness that’s often neglected,” says Chad Tackett, president of Global Health and Fitness in Clackamas, Ore. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking something as simple as stretching won’t be effective.”
Range of motion
Flexibility is a joint’s ability to move through a full range of motion. Good flexibility reduces the risk for injuries and low back pain, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Although you become less flexible as you age, particularly if you aren't active, you can slow down that increasing inflexibility by adding stretching to your regular workout.
Exercise causes muscles to contract; stretching goes in the opposite direction. Flexibility training helps balance muscle groups that might be overused or tightened during exercise. It reduces the risk for muscle damage and soreness brought on by exercise.
Stretching also promotes relaxation, improves sports performance and posture, and reduces the risk for low back pain. Regular stretching can keep you limber enough to more easily lift, bend, turn, and do other daily repetitive movements, the ACSM says.
Stretching is beneficial when done correctly. As with most activities, there are rules that promote safety. Tackett recommends the following principles and guidelines.
Always warm up
Never stretch a cold muscle, because it is tight. Warm up your muscles first to get blood circulating throughout the body.
A warm-up should be a slow, rhythmic exercise of larger muscle groups done before an activity. Riding a bicycle, walking, or doing the movement you’ll be doing in your workout, but at a lower speed and intensity, works well.
This provides the body with a period of adjustment between rest and the activity. The warm-up should last about five to 10 minutes.
Do static stretching
Static stretching involves a slow, gradual, and controlled elongation of the muscle through the full range of motion and is held for 10 to 30 seconds in the furthest comfortable position. Do at least four repetitions per muscle group, the ACSM says. If you can't stretch every day, try for at least two to three times a week.
“You shouldn’t feel pain when stretching. If you do, you’ve gone too far and should back off,” Tackett says.
You should feel only a slight pull on the muscle, the ACSM says. Over time, your muscles will adapt to this pull and gradually more flexible. Don't rush your progress, or you will be at risk for injury.
Stretch before and after
Begin by warming up for five to 10 minutes at a low intensity and stretch the muscles used. Proceed with your cardiovascular exercise for at least 20 minutes. Then cool down for five to 10 minutes by doing your cardio activity at a lower intensity.
“Now, because your muscles are very warm, you should stretch each of the major muscle groups involved in the exercise,” Tackett says.
For example, if you walked on a treadmill, you should stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and lower back.
In addition to stretching those muscles used in the exercise, this also is a good time to go through a full-body stretching routine, since blood has circulated throughout your body and warmed up your muscles.
“Most people’s greatest challenge isn’t learning new stretching exercises or the proper technique,” Tackett says. “The greatest challenge is deciding whether they’re willing to take action, make time for themselves and make flexibility training a priority.”