Stretching and flexibility may very well be the most least understood aspects of exercise and fitness, and yet could have the most significant impact on our health, especially as we get older.
Got to admit – I’m about as flexible as a dry twig… and despite my good intentions, I’m actually getting worse!
- 1 Why Do We Need To Stretch?
- 2 The Benefits of Stretching
- 3 Types of Stretching
- 4 What stretches should I be doing to help improve my flexibility?
- 5 Full Body Stretch
- 6 When Should I Stretch?
- 7 Stretching Tips:
- 8 Conclusion
One of the problems we have, is no proper advice as to:
When we should stretch – before or after a workout? Morning or night?
How long should we stretch for?
What type of stretches should we be doing?
The list goes on.
It makes it even more confusing when scientists can’t agree on the very same questions.
Motivation is also a factor in how often and how well we stretch.
It can be hard to justify spending your precious time stretching, when you could be tearing up the treadmill or banging out some reps.
Whatever your thoughts are on stretching and improving your flexibility, this article will reveal why you really need to do it more, and what the benefits are.
Why Do We Need To Stretch?
Here’s a great definition from Wikipedia, of what stretching entails:
Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched in order to improve the muscle’s felt elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion.
We stretch to improve muscle elasticity, increase muscle control, increase flexibility and increase the range of motion. That’s exactly what stretching does for us.
The question is: why do we need to improve and increase what we already have?
As you’ll see in the list below, a lot of the reasons and benefits are age related.
The Benefits of Stretching
Here are some of the key benefits for making stretching a regular part of your fitness routine and improving your flexibility:
One aspect of stretching that isn’t necessarily age related is the ability to improve your performance.
Flexible joints make it easier to move through a greater range of motion, whilst requiring less energy in doing so.
So whether you’re into weight training, a specific sport, or just like to walk/run every now and again, stretching your muscles will help to improve the performance of these activities.
May Help To Prevent Muscle Soreness and Injury
The jury is still out as to whether stretching can actually prevent muscle soreness or prevent injury.
Depending on what report or study you read, you will discover mixed and contradictory evidence.
There does seem to be more evidence suggesting post-workout stretching can help to reduce the risk of injury.
Stretching also lengthens the muscles and makes every physical activity you do – easier.
Reduces The Risk Of Lower Back Pain
The back – especially the lower back, bears the brunt of poor posture and underused muscles.
If you’ve ever experienced chronic, lower back pain, you’ll know it’s totally debilitating.
The back, and especially the spine, is a precious and fragile area.
If we don’t protect our backs, by strengthening and stretching the muscles supporting the spine and pelvis area, we risk suffering pain and/or injury.
For years I suffered with lower back pain, and just put it down to me being quite tall, getting older, and not having a particularly good posture.
I never stretched my back after a workout or a run, because I didn’t think I needed to.
However once I started incorporating some static stretches (post-workout), my back-pain virtually disappeared!
Now I hardly ever suffer from lower back pain, and if I do feel tight in that area, I know a little more stretching is required.
There are a wide range of stretches you can perform to keep your back in good shape, but pay particular attention to the attaching muscles such as your hamstrings, hip flexors, quads and lats.
Here’s a website that demonstrate some good back stretches.
Since sorting my back out, I can currently deadlift 110kg’s without any pain.
In fact the more I build my deadlift strength, the stronger my back becomes anyway.
Due to lifestyle habits, a poor posture can develop over time and can often be difficult to correct.
Our natural alignment becomes distorted and we can suffer from aches and pains because of it.
General stretching and improving our flexibility, along with taking more care of how we hold ourselves, will help realign soft tissue structures and correct those imbalances.
Pilates and Yoga are both excellent forms of exercise that help to improve your posture.
I am an avid proponent of Pilates, and can verify its effectiveness.
A really good stretching session after a workout has mental benefits as well as physical ones.
Stretching requires a co-ordinated effort of breathing and moving, whilst remaining in a relaxed state.
Pilates and Yoga take stretching and flexibility to a whole new level, and they combine it with relaxing the mind.
Stretching in this way is great for relieving stress.
Even if you don’t think you’re a stressful person, you’ll be surprised at how beneficial it can be.
We know that strength training plays an important role in keeping our muscle, joints and bones strong and healthy, but it’s not enough if we can’t even bend down to put our socks on!
Any form of resistance training will help to elongate the muscles.
Stretching won’t necessarily make your muscles bigger, but it will help you complete push and pull exercises easier.
If the range of movement you can extend to becomes easier, you will naturally develop a longer muscle, which can be increased in size and strength.
A longer muscle also looks far better than short, bulging muscles.
Improved Quality of Life
Many of us live sedentary, day to day lives, working jobs where we sit down for extended periods of time.
Our bodies become lazy; our underused muscles start to shrink (muscle atrophy) and we develop a limited range of movements in our joints.
And as we grow old, it is not just our previous lifestyle that constricts muscles and joints.
We naturally lose moisture in bone tissue, dehydrate and stiffen up. Oh the joys of getting older!
By stretching and working on our flexibility while we are still young enough, could be the difference between having an independent, active life into our winter years, or being so stiff and inflexible we need someone to brush our hair and put our slippers on.
Having a flexible body helps us to perform everyday tasks with comparative ease without even thinking about them.
Reaching for an item on a high shelf, stretching round to the back-seat of the car, or picking up a bag of shopping, are all simple actions we take for granted, and yet could prove problematic or even painful if we didn’t have a degree of flexibility.
The more flexible you are, the easier these actions are to perform, and the less chance of hurting yourself in the process.
Why does it always come back round to sex?!
If you’ve ever flicked through a copy of the Karma Sutra you’ll know exactly what I mean in regard to flexibility!
Types of Stretching
There are various methods of stretching, but the two most recognized are static and dynamic.
Static stretching used to be the ‘norm’ for pre-workout routines/sports.
This is where you hold yourself in place for up to 30 seconds whilst slowly stretching the muscle.
This is done to progressively stretch the muscle to its full extent (or what I like to call – the biting point) and will be your primary type of stretching to help improve your flexibility.
It is a safe way to stretch muscles but you should only stretch them in this way at the end of a session and/or when your muscles are already warm.
Static stretching after exercise can also aid muscle recovery and may help to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – the tight and sore feeling in your muscles the following day or two (although this is not scientifically proven).
Dynamic stretching is a relatively new concept of warming up and stretching the muscles before a workout, event, sport etc.
It is also known as ‘sports specific’ stretching.
It is designed to lubricate the joints and warm up muscle groups that will be used for the physical activity to come.
It will help to improve performance and prevent muscular injuries.
The stretches are designed to mimic the actions of the activity.
For example, a tennis player might perform a series of front and side lunges to mimic the actions on court.
A runner might start with gentle walking and gradually build their stride length and speed in order to warm and stretch their leg muscles.
What stretches should I be doing to help improve my flexibility?
You must listen to your body for direction.
You might feel tightness in a particular muscle group, have limited range of motion, or experience slight pain when performing a task or exercise.
These are warning signs that you may need to improve your flexibility.
The stretches you perform should concentrate on those muscles and joints.
For example, if you struggle to put on a pair of shoes without having to sit down, it might be that your hamstrings are short and only provide a limited range of movement.
Short, tight hamstrings are particularly common, and can lead to a number of physical problems – especially the lower back.
So you might want to focus on performing stretches that work the hamstrings, more than less problematic areas.
For any area of your body you would like to improve the flexibility, or for an all-over body set of stretches, there are dozens of good websites and YouTube videos that explain in detail the ins and outs of stretching.
Joining a Yoga or Pilates class will also help to improve your flexibility and overall strength.
Full Body Stretch
If time is against you, perform a static stretch that works the entire body.
Much like a compound exercise works many muscle groups at once.
Here’s an example of a single stretch that stretches nearly every muscle in the body:
Just make sure you at least spend a couple of minutes or more warming your muscles up first.
When Should I Stretch?
You can stretch any time you like, just as long as your muscles are properly warmed up first.
You don’t have to limit yourself to stretching before or after a workout.
I perform resistance training on alternate days, 3 days a week.
On one of the days off, I attend a Pilates class. On another day I might do some ab work, but spend most of the time stretching.
You might have time at the end of the day, at home, when the kids have gone to bed.
The point is: stretching is beneficial whenever you decide to do it.
If you are a sportsman or woman, then you might need to spend more time stretching immediately prior to and after your given activity.
Never stretch cold muscles. Hopefully you are already aware of this, but it can’t be stressed enough.
Not so long ago personal trainers and so-called ‘experts’, recommended ‘dynamic stretching’ before you even warmed up!
Never do this.
Always ensure your muscles have warmed up sufficiently before you attempt to stretch them.
When your muscles are cold, such as when you first get out of bed, they will have tightened up and contracted a little overnight.
The last thing you want to do is start a deep hamstring stretch.
Starting the day with some very light, gentle stretches however, is a great way to warm your muscles up and prepare them for the day’s activities.
Listen to your body. You know what areas of your body that isn’t as flexible as it should be.
Concentrate on stretching muscle groups to help ease pain or any form of discomfort.
If you are in a lot of muscular pain then seek advice from a doctor or a physiotherapist.
A good physio will be able to recommend specific stretches to help you.
It shouldn’t be painful.
Stretching can actually be a very enjoyable sensation.
You should never push a stretch to the point when it feels really painful.
For static stretches you should hold a stretch until you feel the tightness.
Keep the resistance on until the tightness goes, then stretch a little further.
Focus. Don’t let your mind wander off when stretching.
Concentrate solely on the muscle that is being stretched.
Notice the feeling you get in and around the muscle.
Imagine the muscle becoming longer.
Just as your muscles will grow more when you concentrate on a particular resistance exercise, so your muscles will respond and stretch when you give them your undivided attention.
Stretching has developed as a science considerably. It is an activity that demands more of our time and attention, and should form part of our fitness regime.
It improves our quality of life, (especially as we grow older) and can enhance physical performance and prevent injury.
It allows us to push our body beyond its comfort zone, thus increasing our overall physical ability.
Start the habit of daily stretching – whether it’s after a workout or in the evening before you go to bed.
Just 5 minutes a day could make all the difference.
Why not start with this very popular Stretch Out Strap and stretching poster.
Are you already flexible? What’s your secret? Or, (like me) is this an area you need to work on – a lot?!