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SparkPeople’s Exercise Reference Guides offer an in-depth look at the principles of fitness.
Stretching comes naturally to all of us. You might notice that if you have been sitting in a particular position for a long time, you stretch unconsciously. It feels good! In addition to that good feeling, a consistent stretching program will produce large gains in flexibility and joint movement.
What is Stretching?
The act of stretching is to extend or lengthen your body or limbs. Stretching helps you develop and maintain a healthy level of flexibility, which refers to the range of movement at any particular joint. Stretching is also referred to as flexibility training. Examples of stretches include: calf stretch, hamstring stretch, triceps stretch, and certain yoga poses and Pilates exercises. The Fitness Resource Center includes stretching routines, videos and stretching demonstrations.
Flexibility training is broadly accepted as a way to increase joint mobility. The goal of stretching is to optimize joint mobility while maintaining joint stability. Although research has shown that different stretching methods will improve joint flexibility, it should be noted that inappropriate stretching can cause injury. Recently, researchers have promoted the concept of a “functional range of motion.” This refers to developing just enough flexibility for a specific activity (or sport) without compromising joint stability.
Everyone should stretch, regardless of age, gender, or flexibility level. Stretching should be a part of your daily routine, whether you exercise or not. There are simple stretches you can do while watching TV, using the computer, or getting ready for bed.
What are the Benefits of Stretching?
Without regular stretching, your muscles will tighten and the range of motion in your joints will decrease as you age. This can put a damper on active lifestyles and even hinder day-to-day activities. Tasks that used to be simple, such as zipping up a dress or reaching for a can off of the top shelf, can become extremely difficult. A regular stretching program can help you to maintain your range of motion and make daily living activities easier.
Stretching does not demand a huge time commitment, but it can give you huge results! Here are some of the benefits you can expect from a regular stretching program:
Reduced muscle tension
Increased range of movement in the joints
Enhanced muscular coordination
Increased circulation to various parts of the body
Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
Delayed onset of muscle fatigue
Enhanced performance in daily life, sports, or other physical activity
Added variety, enjoyment, and satisfaction to your exercise program
Stretching is important for people of all ages! One of the greatest benefits of stretching is that you’re able to increase your range of motion, which means your limbs and joints can move further without discomfort or injury. Post-exercise stretching can also aid in workout recovery, decrease muscle soreness, and ensure that your muscles and tendons are in good working order. The more conditioned your muscles and tendons are, the better they can handle the rigors of sport and exercise, and the less likely that they'll become injured.
What Influences Your Level of Flexibility?
There are four main factors that affect your flexibility level and ability to stretch:
Age. Younger people are naturally more flexible than older people. Why? Muscle connective tissues have a natural tendency to shorten and lose elasticity as you age, resulting in muscle tightness and stiffness.
Gender. Females tend to be more flexible than males.
Exercise history. Active people tend to be more flexible than inactive people.
Temperature. When your muscles are warm (whether from exercising or from a warmer environment), they will be more flexible than when they are cold. Why? Increase in muscle temperature decrease muscular resistance, which boosts your range of motion.
How Much Stretching Should You Do?
When considering the guidelines for aerobic exercise, keep the FITT principles in mind (Frequency, (Intensity, Time and Type).
Frequency: Number of stretching sessions per week
The more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you will gain flexibility. It is recommended to stretch all of the major muscle groups daily—or at the very least, each time you exercise (a minimum of 3-4 times per week).
Intensity: How deeply to stretch
Each stretch should be done in a slow and controlled manner, without bouncing or forcing, which can cause your muscles to tighten, increasing your risk of injury. Stretch in a slow, steady motion to the point of “mild discomfort.” If you are stretching to the point of pain, you have stretched too far.
Time: How long you should stretch
Ideally, most experts recommend that people stretch for 10-15 minutes per day. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds, repeating one or two more times, depending on how you feel.
Type: Activities that count as stretching
There are several different types of stretching. The methods described below will help you safely improve your level of flexibility. The two most common and accepted techniques for improving flexibility are static and PNF stretching.
Static stretching is a low-force stretch where the muscle is held at the greatest possible length for up to 30 seconds. This is probably the most common type of stretch, mainly because it benefits from being both effective and safe. SparkPeople’s Stretching Demos are all examples of static stretches.
PNF is short for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. This involves maximally contracting a muscle (usually with a partner or trainer who is trained in this technique) and then immediately doing a static stretch for the muscle. This type of stretching may be performed without a partner, although it is usually more effective with a partner's assistance. In all cases, it is important to note that the stretched muscle should be rested (and relaxed) for at least 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique. There are two types of PNF stretches, Contract-relax (an isometric contraction of the muscle, followed by relaxing, then stretching to the point of limitation) and Contract-relax-agonist-contract (an isometric contraction of the muscle, followed by relaxing, stretching to the point of limitation, then contracting the agonist/opposing muscle, followed by a stretch to the point of limitation).
Passive stretching increases the range of motion by using an external force (like a partner, a wall or the floor). These stretches can be very useful in the development of stretching but care must be taken to ensure the stretch is not forced; it should remain within the realms of comfort at all times.
Active stretching involves assuming a position (or stretch) and then holding it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your “helper” muscles. When you lie on your back with one leg extended up in the air, for example, and continue to hold it there without any assistance you are doing an active stretch. Active stretching increases active flexibility and strengthens the “helper” muscles too. Active stretches are usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for more than 10 seconds and rarely need to be held any longer than 15 seconds. These types of stretches are frequently used in yoga.
Dynamic stretching involves controlled, gentle leg and arm swings that take you to the limits of your range of motion. There are no bounces or "jerky" movements. An example of dynamic stretching would be slow, controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists. Dynamic stretching improves dynamic flexibility and is quite useful as part of a warm-up for an active or aerobic workout (such as a dance or martial-arts class).
Get the Most Out of Your Stretching Routine
Stretching can be highly beneficial if done properly. If done improperly, it can cause serious damage. Here are some helpful tips to ensure you are stretching safely and preventing injury:
Always warm up before stretching. Stretching a cold muscle increases the risk of pulls or tears. Think of your muscles like you would a rubber band. It’s easy to stretch a warm rubber band, but if you try to stretch a cold one, you risk cracking or breaking it. Don’t treat your muscles like a cold rubber band! Your best bet is to stretch after warming up or at the end of your workout.
Do not lock your joints when you stretch. Keep joints like the elbows and knees slightly bent to avoid unnecessary stress on the joints.
Never hold your breath while stretching. Try to breathe normally, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This will make your stretching a more relaxing experience.
Take your time. The long-sustained, mild stretch reduces unwanted muscle tension and tightness.
Do not compare yourself with others. Everyone has different degrees of flexibility. Comparisons may lead to overstretching.
If you have had a hip replacement, do not cross your legs or bend your hips past a 90-degree angle during any of your stretching exercises.
Avoid ballistic stretching and other high-force, short-duration stretches that use rapid bouncing motions or momentum. You have far less control during this type of stretch and therefore a greater potential risk of injury. It does not allow your muscles to adjust to, and relax in, the stretched position. It may instead cause them to tighten up by repeatedly activating the stretch reflex.
Never stretch to the point of pain. If it hurts, stop.
Talk to your doctor about any current or former musculoskeletal injuries or problems that might affect your ability to stretch safely and effectively.
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is a certified personal trainer, certified health coach and advanced health & fitness specialist. See all of Jen's articles.
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