Let’s talk about the dos and don’ts of stretching. Flexibility is one of the key factors of any good fitness routine. Yet, I believe many exercisers often misunderstand some key aspects related to correct stretching.
How to stretch, when to stretch and how long to hold stretches are just a few of the questions that I hear on a regular basis. This week, I set out on a mission to work through the theories behind how, when and why correct stretching is important and I’ve summarized my findings below in the hope that we’ll all start prioritizing correct stretching technique as we work towards better fitness.
I’m the perfect candidate to test correct stretching philosophies because I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with flexibility. As an athlete, I would often get frustrated because I had to dedicate extra time to this slow and sometimes tedious and uncomfortable task. And, as a fitness enthusiast, I often find it frustrating that many classes do not allow enough time for correct stretching.
My hamstrings have always been tight and even as a child I couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees. Some people are born to be more flexible than others: my sister was an amazing gymnast – she’s always been as flexible as can be – and I can see that each of my four children have different levels of innate flexibility. The good news is that whatever level of flexibility you’re born with, correct stretching will help you improve. I’ve stopped using the excuse that I’m naturally less flexible and now I can touch my toes with ease but, don’t be fooled, I’ve had to work up to it slowly and consistently.
Why is stretching correctly important?
1. Stretching helps you maximize your body’s ability to move freely.
In simple terms that means stretching helps you get out of your own way internally so your body can perform at its best. Tight soft tissue can restrict joint movements and hinder important tendons from effectively doing their job.
2. Stretching helps you avoid injury.
Training with tight muscles can lead to serious injury and muscle tears.
With these two reasons in mind, I never skimp on stretching before and after exercise.
How much stretching is enough?
This week I spent hours researching stretching and I’ve spoken with physical therapists, trainers, and coaches to find out what correct stretching really means for individuals. Everyone I spoke with and everything I read led me to this conclusion:
“Fitness is not a one size fits all situation and, because flexibility is a factor of fitness, you must determine what is right for your own body”
I recommend that you navigate your own personal stretching needs and keep my dos and don’ts in mind.
Correct stretching dos and don’ts
- Spend time doing dynamic stretches before exercising.
- Dynamic stretching involves gentle movements to increase your range of movement. It improves blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues prior to exertion and also prepares receptors within the muscle to perform.
- Prepare your body with fluid flowing movements such as arm circles, leg swings and gentle bending.
- Use jerky bouncing or forced movements to increase your range of motion as this can cause injury.
- This ballistic stretching forces your muscles into an extended range of motion and the risks are not worth the rewards.
- Dedicate at least 10 minutes after a workout to loosen tight muscles with static stretches that you hold for approximately 30 seconds.
- Stretch to the point of slight discomfort then back off a little and hold. This type of stretching can improve your overall flexibility and may decrease the amount of muscle soreness you experience after exercising.
- Stretch to the point of pain or severe discomfort. You shouldn’t ever hurt your body though exercise and too much flexibility is not good for your body.
- Your joints rely on muscle tension to hold them in the correct position so, if you overstretch or push your body past what is comfortable, you can increase the likelihood of joint and tendon problems.
Find your own perfect flexibility balance
There is an art to finding your body’s balance and the only way to do it is to be aware and conscious of your movements. It’s simple advice but make sure you exercise commonsense at all times when exercising! If you listen to your body the chances are that you will achieve results faster and you’ll avoid causing yourself injury. Part of this commonsense approach to exercising is listening to your body: if you feel any pain or discomfort then stop.
My final piece of advice is to show up a few minutes early to a class and do your own dynamic stretch routine before the class starts and if you need to, stay a little later after class to complete your warm-down. If you are rushed for time then don’t rush your stretching: try to make your main workout more effective instead by using combination exercises.
Your body is exactly that it’s ‘your body’. Take responsibility for caring for it correctly and never just copy someone else’s routine. Instead educate yourself and find what works for you. I recommend starting at the top of your body, gently working your way down and addressing all major muscle groups. Stretching and movement is natural, so relax and do what feels right.
Written by Samantha Clayton, AFAA, ISSA. Samantha is Director of Fitness Education at Herbalife.