Stretching: Often Overlooked but Rich in Results
Get ready to enhance your workouts and activities of daily living!
Whether you workout for results, for enhanced health and wellness, because it is fun, or all of the above, for a greater return on your time investment, stretch. The quick post-workout hamstring and quad stretches are a great start, but a few minutes of dedicated stretching for overall flexibility gains is different than the post workout quickie.
Why did stretching fall out of favor?
Stretching got a bad rap in the strength training and endurance communities when research began to surface showing that the old school static-stretching-warm-up that was the norm was detrimental to both results and injury prevention. Warm ups began to change from the static stretches of yesteryear to the dynamic range of motion warm ups that are being implemented in workouts today. Your best stretching practice is to start with a warm body (not to BE the warm up). Stretching was moved to the end of a hard workout when motivation is low or conversely to the end of a class where participants are lobbying for more ab-work; a token hamstring stretch finished off the workout.
The fallout of the demise of stretching is increased risk and occurrence of injury, a diminishment of strength potential, an increase in imbalances of the body’s muscularity and functionality, and an increase in mental and emotional stress.
Benefits of stretching
- Stretching increases Range of Motion (ROM). Proper ROM is the starting place for building strength. If you cannot perform good range of motion, it is not a good practice to build strength on that foundation.
- Stretching tugs on bone, which in turn stimulates bone growth. Stretching is a gentle non-impact way to help increase bone mass.
- Stretching can create balance in the body.
- Stretching can un-do some of the detriments of sitting.
- Stretching can un-do some of the byproducts of aging including loss of bone, loss of mobility, loss of function.
- Stretching can improve your posture, which in turn improves the body’s ability to stave off back and neck pain.
- Stretching improves circulation and blood flow.
- Stretching enhances stress reduction.
Guidelines for best stretching practices
- Access your flexibility to determine your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you think you have awesome flexibility because your hamstrings are long and you can touch your palms to the floor, if the opposing muscle, your hip flexors, are super tight, this imbalance between hypermobility and tightness is a recipe for low back disaster. For help, enlist a certified personal trainer.
- Be warm before you begin.
- Hold stretches for 15-30 seconds.
- Consistent stretching is the goal. Stretching is most effective when performed as a habitual practice. 2-3 times per week of dedicated stretching is a great start, but 5-7 days per week will garner the best results.
- Stretch all major muscle groups.
- Stretch all opposing muscle groups. For example, seated hamstring stretches only stretch the posterior chain muscles. Anterior chain muscles should also be stretched (hip flexor stretches, cobra or baby cobra stretches, spinal extensions, etc.).
- Focus on the stretch and use your breath to relax and go deeper.
- As you breath, exhale into the stretch. Exhalation causes the diaphragm and thoracic-cavity muscles to relax enhancing length of the muscles and soothes the nervous system.
- Don’t get competitive: as you focus on your breath let the distance achieved in the stretch be what it is for today.
- Stretch to the point of limit of the movement, not the point of pain. As you relax, the limit will increase; do not force this to happen, wait for it.
- Use various joint levers to increase ROM. For example, in a low lunge stretch, there is a difference between the knee of the back leg being fully straight, partially straight, bent and touching the floor, or fully bent with the foot near the glute. Since some of your muscles cross only the hip versus cross only the knee versus cross both the hip and the knee, all the above variations will target different muscles that cross the anterior hip.
- Stretching can be performed after a vigorous workout to promote relaxation. It can also be effectively incorporated at another time of day as long as the body is warm.
- Stretching can be described as intense, but should not be described as painful. If you are experiencing pain, back off and try another strategy for that muscle group. If you need help with pain-free stretching tailored for you, a personal trainer can help.