Stretching is often the first thing to get tossed from a workout routine. I don’t know if it’s because it doesn’t produce the same immediate feedback as cardiovascular work or strength training, but it goes by the wayside for lots of people. Now it’s not like most of us need ballet or martial arts flexibility, but being overly tight limits movement and inhibits exercise results, not to mention increasing the potential for injury.
Common reasons for decreased flexibility:
- over or under-use of given muscles
- being in static positions for long periods (like sitting all day)
- the brain’s response to adverse joint conditions
Fixing tightness may go beyond simply stretching if there are other factors in play, but stretching is a good place to start.
There are several methods of stretching, all of which can increase flexibility. For any method, you should feel a muscle stretch as uncomfortable, but not painful – never stretch into pain.
– Foam rolling is technically a form of stretching, although it really improves muscle tissue quality more than length. I have all my clients foam roll before stretching because it has a huge positive effect on stretching itself. Muscles that are full of “knots” tend to resist stretching. Think of a muscle as a rope – if you tie a knot in it and pull on both ends, what happens to the knot…? For a greater explanation, check out my blog on foam rolling.
– Static stretching (i.e., holding a stretch for 30 seconds) works well for some people. If you do use static stretching, make sure to hold your positions strictly. Posture and alignment can get sloppy while stretching over time.
– Active stretching engages the opposing muscle to help stretch. For example, tightening the quadriceps when stretching the hamstrings. The stretch in held for a much shorter time than in static stretching, from 2-6 seconds. I have found a lot of success with that method in my clients.
– Dynamic stretching uses smooth, controlled movements to gradually increase flexibility and range of motion. This method works well for those who don’t have major tightness but want to move better and warm up before a workout. Usually 8-10 repetitions do the trick.
– Ballistic stretching is essentially quick bouncing movements into and out of a stretch. This is not recommended for general fitness and can potentially injure muscles or connective tissues.
You may be surprised to learn that some of the long held beliefs about stretching aren’t true. Stretching doesn’t substantially help prevent soreness, either before or after exercise. It’s also doesn’t help prevent injuries in the short term. So, stretching right before exercise hasn’t been shown to significantly change injury risk. However, consistent stretching over the long term does help reduce the risk of injury. So, the best reason to do it is to improve movement and long term injury risk, as well as the positive benefits of exercise.
Stretching can be done everyday, and should be done frequently for general tightness to improve movement. If you’re really inflexible, try stretching everyday for a couple of weeks and see how much better you feel!