As with many trends in health, there has been a pendulum of advice regarding the safety and effectiveness of stretching, when to stretch, how long to stretch, and what to stretch; as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s look a little into each of these issues.
Safety and efficacy:
When done properly, stretching is an important part of an overall fitness program. The key components of safety are few and easy. First, stretching should never hurt. If, during a stretch, you feel a slight vibration or bouncing of the muscle, you are stretching too far. This vibration is your muscle attempting to contract to prevent over-extending a joint and causing damage. Secondly, never bounce while in a stretch. Steady, prolonged holds or very slow rhythmic motions are safest. Stretching is a great way to maintain and gain length in the muscle tissue. This can take time, however. Muscle adaptations take time and patience, but if you increase your muscle length and continue to strengthen, you will end up with more power to work with in greater ranges of motion.
When to Stretch:
This one has been hotly contested, from never… to before training… to after training… to throughout the day. I would argue there are very few rules for this one. In general, stretching a slightly warm muscle is going to be more effective. Because of this, you will likely get better results with fewer opportunities for pain or dysfunction if you perform an active warm up, stretch at the end of the day, or stretch after activity. There was a big debate not too long ago regarding whether stretching before exercise caused injury. When you stretch a muscle it is going to reset to a new (longer) length. If you have not trained the muscle to work in this new length there is a slight increase in risk for injury. Prior to participating in activity, it is more effective to perform a dynamic warm up (check out a future post for more!) rather than stretching.
How long to Stretch:
In this aspect of stretching, I believe the correct answer is determined by the method that gets people stretching! In general, a stretch that lasts at least 30 seconds is going to be more effective than shorter periods of time, however yogic style stretching for periods of up to 3 minutes can be extremely effective. I would finally argue that for most of us stretching is something we find difficult to integrate into our normal routines. Because of this fact, I often prescribe stretches with holds of only 2-3 seconds, but I recommend a set of 10 repetitions be performed several times throughout the day. A variety of stretching methods exist, and the availability of this menu gives us more flexibility in our ability to ease into stretching.
What to stretch:
While certainly this varies greatly from person to person, I see some general trends across diverse groups of people. So here are four simple areas to focus on:
- The front of the hip and thigh– Hip flexors and quadriceps
- The back of the thigh – Hamstrings
- The back of the hip – Piriformis
- The upper shoulders – Upper trapezius
So if stretching is so great for us, why don’t we do it? Quite frankly I find most people don’t stretch because it is boring, seems like a waste of time, and it takes too long. Television or streaming video can be a great distracter! Commit to stretching during your favorite 20-40 minute television show. Even if you want to just relax on the couch, stretching during commercials can get you 10-20 minutes of stretching in one sitting! Yoga and/or Pilates can be a great way to perform more active stretching and often has the benefit of shared motivation.
Simple stretching is good to not only prevent the usual muscle aches and pains associated with leading an active lifestyle or growing older, but also to prevent serious pains such as in the neck and back. Do a little each day, stay active, and keep moving!