4 Smarter Ways to Limber Up

I’m the first to admit that stretching is not high on my priority list. When I’m crunched for time, the last thing I want to do is spend an extra five to 10 minutes stretching after a workout. Consequently, my body has paid the price. I have very tight hamstrings that cause lower back pain, and I’m not nearly as flexible as I should be. 
Even though I know the benefits of stretching, I need to remind myself how much it’s time well-spent. A regular stretching routine helps reduce tension, increase range of motion and circulation, and enhances muscular coordination. While stretching is an important part of any well-rounded exercise routine, it’s important to be sure you’re careful about how you’re stretching to avoid injury. Here are some easy tips to help you stretch smarter.

1. Stretch after a workout, not before. 

Although there are always exceptions, recent research has concluded that static stretching can actually decrease muscle strength and power.  A recent summary of over 100 studies on stretching before workouts found some interesting results, reporting that  ''static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more. While the effect is reduced somewhat when people’s stretches last less than 45 seconds, stretched muscles are, in general, substantially less strong.''  This same review found that muscle power decreases an average of 2 percent after pre-workout stretching.  Researchers theorize that while stretching loosens up muscles, it can also decrease their ability to hold energy and react quickly.    
Instead of stretching pre-workout, a better option might be a dynamic warm-up that gets the muscles you’re about to use ready for action.  For instance, if you’re about to run or walk, try some jumping jacks, high knees or straight-leg marches to get the blood pumping.

2. Use the right type of stretching to safely improve flexibility. 

There are a variety of different types of stretches you can do depending on your needs and activities. Static stretches are the most common, primarily because they are safe and effective. Static stretches are low-force stretches typically held for up to 30 seconds. 
There are other types of stretches, such as PNF, passive, active and dynamic. Ballistic (bouncing) stretching is the one type that is no longer considered safe, since it requires quick and forceful movement to take you beyond your range of motion. Familiarize yourself with the different options as well as how to safely perform them to add variety to your stretching routine. 

3. Stretch only to the point of mild discomfort.

Stretching should feel good and should never be painful. By moving too far into a stretch, the body utilizes the stretch reflex, which will contract or shorten the same muscles you are trying to lengthen. This reflex is a form of protection against injury. You should feel a slight pull on the muscle, but not more than that.  Also remember to breathe throughout the stretch, because holding your breath can cause muscle tension.

4. Stretch often. 

Although it can take time to see weight loss or improved endurance from a regular exercise routine, that’s not the case with stretching.  The nice thing about a consistent stretching routine is that you’ll see improvements in your flexibility fairly quickly.  That’s good motivation to keep it up!

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching activities be done at least two days per week. However, if you have lost some joint motion or feel stiff, range of motion or stretching activities should be done daily. As we age, most of us will benefit from a daily stretching program.