Your Basic Guide to Stretching

Are you confused about stretching? You aren’t alone. Should you stretch? How should you stretch? And when’s the best time? There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. So, here’s what you need to know about stretching—and how to do it safely.  

The latest research agrees on one thing: The best time to stretch is after a workout, when your muscles are warm. “Many people stretch before an activity in the belief that it will help prevent injury. [The] scientific literature does not support this belief,” says Digby Sales, a retired kinesiology professor. In fact, stretching cold muscles can lead to injury because when we stretch a muscle we cause microscopic tearing to the tissue, which makes it difficult for us to put strain on the muscle (i.e. from weight training or aerobic exercise). In other words, if you stretch your muscles before you run, it might be more difficult for them to generate the power necessary for the run—so, the stress of the run combined with the stress from the pre-exercise stretches could put your body at greater risk for injury. Instead, start your work out with a relevant warm-up (i.e. walking briskly before you run), and then stretch your muscles afterwards.

Benefits of Stretching

Most people don’t spend enough time stretching, which improves flexibility, mobility and strength. Flexibility is the range of motion you have around a joint or a group of joints; mobility refers to your how well you move within that range of motion. Improving mobility has a greater impact on our ability to perform everyday tasks—being able to bend over and pick up a bag of groceries, for example, requires mobility, which is achieved by having strong, stretched muscles.

Stretching can also reduce lower back pain, alleviate muscle soreness after exercise, and improve our overall muscle efficiency. Most importantly, stretching is good for our mind and relaxes us, says Jay Blahnik, author of Full-Body Flexibilty. “Stretching feels good because your body sends out signals to relax when you are pulling the muscles.”

Types of Stretches

“In the past, there was one protocol for stretching: Grab the body part and hold.”  This is a passive stretch. “We are learning that passive stretching will make you better at doing the stretches, and not much else,” says Blahnik. Passive stretching is also known as assisted stretching—you use some form of assistance to achieve a stretch, either your body weight, a strap, or even gravity. With passive stretching, you relax the muscle and rely on the external force to hold you in place.

Active stretching occurs when you stretch one muscle by actively contracting another—usually a muscle in opposition. A good example of this would be to squeeze the shoulder blades together and contract the back muscles in order to stretch the chest.

Whether you are doing passive or active stretches, you can choose to hold a stretch in a static position or keep the stretch in motion—achieving a dynamic stretch. We can distinguish between static and dynamic using a head tilt, which stretches out the neck and upper back. For a static stretch, stand or sit tall, lower your left ear to the left shoulder, place your left hand on the right side of your head and gently pull down, holding the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. For a dynamic head tilt, lower your ear to the shoulder while lifting or pushing the opposite ear towards the ceiling, then release the stretch and repeat on the other side. Repeat in a fluid sequence 10 to 12 times.

Amid new research, more attention is being paid to dynamic stretching. “[Active] stretching is great because it makes weaker muscles strong and lengthens out tighter muscles,” says Blahnik. “It isn’t that the traditional way of stretching is bad, [but] active, dynamic stretches make you more mobile because you are training the muscles to react to one another.”

How To Stretch

The best time to work on overall flexibility is at the end of your workout, and not in the beginning— remember: Warm up, get the muscles working, then stretch. Blahnik recommends adopting a three-step stretch system.  Focus on variety, strength and balance. For variety, incorporate a mixture of both static and dynamic stretches; build up strength that supports mobility and flexibility through your dynamic stretches; and pay attention to your body’s muscle imbalances. If you notice you are tighter on one side than the other (most people are), be a little more aggressive in your stretches on the tighter side until you notice you have a similar range of motion.

Erin Phelan is a freelance writer and certified fitness professional and personal trainer with over 10 years experience in the fitness industry.

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