You may think, well the main concern is exercising not stretching. So, stretching may take a back seat in your exercise routine. Don’t commit this mistake, so rashly.
In fact, stretching may help you to:
(i) increase your joint range of motion
(ii) decrease your risk of injury
(iii) boost your athletic performance
Benefits Of Stretching – Stretching For Flexibility
Let us understand why stretching benefits you. Stretching helps enhance flexibility, and, consequently:
(i) improves the functioning of physical activities
(ii) reduce the risk of injuries
(iii) enables the joints to move through their full range of motion
(iv) facilitates the muscles to work most efficiently
(v) improves blood flow to the muscles
The bottom line is that stretching makes you more flexible. So, you can enjoy your day-to-day physical activities more and live an independent life even in old age.
Stretching To Improve Flexibility
You can stretch anytime, anywhere. You just need to follow these tips and guidelines to do stretching safely and effectively to increase flexibility.
1. Stretching Vs. Flexibility: Flexibility and stretching are two different things. Flexibility means the range of motion for a given joint. Muscles and connective tissues, like ligaments and tendons, affect the extent of flexibility. Stretching is a form of exercise that can lead to improvement in flexibility.
2. The Optimal Degree Of Flexibility Is Different For Everyone: Limited range of motion can occur due to injuries, joint pain, or poor posture. Except when a joint is hurt, constrained range of motion may be because of tight or stiff muscles. When your muscles are too tight, try stretching to relax and open-up your stiff muscles.
However, muscles being too loose may not be good either. Muscles that are overly flexible may be weak. This could result in to joint instability and dislocation. If your muscles are too flexible, then you need to strengthen your muscles and joints with resistance training.
The appropriate degree of flexibility that you need would depend on your desired movements in accordance with your day-to-day routine or the sport you play. For instance, baseball players require more flexibility in their shoulders compared to runners. Cyclists require less flexibility in their legs than martial professionals. So much so that simply moving a bag of groceries in your pantry or pushing a grass mower in your garden needs some amount of flexibility.
But trying to stretch your leg behind your head may be a bit extreme. “Everything in moderation” – is the mantra, which holds true in case of flexibility also.
3. Use Static Stretching At The Right Time: Static stretching entails:
(a) slowly stretching a muscle as much as one can.
(b) holding it for a short length of time, generally 10-30 seconds, allowing the muscle to gradually adapt to the new range of motion.
This is the most common form of stretching and mostly people do this to warm up just before they exercise. But, do you know this is not the right time for doing static stretching?Static stretching is not suggested for warming up before you workout or exercise. In fact, it can impair your performance and increase probability of injury occurrence if you do it right before workout or exercise.
So, for example:
(i) Don’t bend down and touch your toes to stretch your legs before running.
(ii) Don’t hold your hands together behind the back to stretch the chest before you bench press.
Why? Look at it this way: Rubber bands and muscles are alike in that they both have elastic properties. A rubber band that’s too stretchy doesn’t pull itself back swiftly enough to generate a strong “pop.” Same way, an excessively stretched muscle has to work harder to produce the appropriate level of drive. This can overburden and strain a muscle.
Some research suggests that pre-event stretching may actually decrease performance. Research has also shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength.
But, don’t think static stretching is bad. Actually, it can be the safest and most efficient form of stretching. The caveat is simply do not perform it for a warm-up before exercising. That’s why many experts recommend that you keep static stretching for a cool-down activity, after you’re done with exercising, or as the main point of your workout (after you have warmed up). During this time, the muscles are warm, more elastic, and less likely to get injured.
Caution: At no time statically stretch a cold muscle. Cold muscles are prone to tear when stretched incorrectly. Make sure to warm-up first with active, dynamic movements. Read on next point to learn how.
4. Dynamic Warm-up Prior To working Out: Instead of static stretching, try performing a “dynamic warmup.” A dynamic warm-up involves performing movements similar to those in your sport or physical activity at a low level, then gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up. For instance, here are three tips:
(i) You’re about to jog three miles. First, do some dynamic movements to warm up: slowly walk, gradually speeding up for about five minutes.
(ii) You’re going to do a set of bench presses. First, bench press a much lighter load — one that is about 50% to 70% lighter than what you’re planning to lift later. Do 2-3 sets of those light bench presses (10-15 repetitions per set).
(iii) You’re about to stretch your leg muscles. First, do some high knee marches and walking lunges to warm up those muscles.
Dynamic movements like arm circles, jumping jacks, and rope skipping are other good dynamic options for warming up. Low-intensity activity will slowly raise your heart rate and enhance blood flow to the muscles. It will gradually warm up your body’s temperature as well.
5.Don’t Aim For Pain: Although, it’s true that you should stretch and hold a muscle beyond its normal length to improve flexibility. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
Tip: While stretching statically, you should not stretch to the point of pain. This can hurt your muscle such as tearing a muscle, spraining a ligament, or dislocating a joint.
6. Avoid Bounce: This is a most common mistake, which the beginners often do while stretching. For example, ballistic stretching involves forcibly moving your body into a greater stretch usually by performing quick, powerful movements. A prime example would be bobbing up and down in an attempt to touch your toes. In general, this type of stretching increases chance of injury and can cause muscles to tighten up significantly. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and actually contribute to muscle tightness. Ballistic, or bouncing-style stretching is usually not suggested, particularly if you are a beginner or recovering from an injury.
7. Fact-Check Your Technique:
(i) Be guided by research-based recommendations or take help from a qualified professional. Read here the recommendations of American College of Sports Medicine
(ii) Try to adopt a general stretching program as per the guidelines set forth by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The ACSM suggests at least 2 to 3 days per week of stretching the major muscles groups; greater gains will be attained if done daily. Here, download the guidelines.
(iii) Before performing static stretches, properly warm up with dynamic activities (such as walking). Follow these guidelines for doing static stretches:
(a) Stretch to the point of slight discomfort or feeling of tightness in the muscle.
(b) Static stretch should be held for 10 to 30 seconds per repetition with approximately four repetitions per muscle group. Do multiple stretches of your major muscle groups.
(c) Keep in mind, each individual is different and so are their flexibility and stretching needs. Thus, never compare yourself to others.
If you are a beginner, consider talking to a qualified professional establishing a program that’s right for your specific needs. And if you have a health condition such as osteoporosis, arthritis, or chronic back pain, consult a licensed physical therapist.