Stretching sometimes get a bad rap for being intense or too painful for already sore or tight muscles. But the truth is, when done correctly and consistently, a stretching routine can greatly improve your mobility, flexibility, and range of motion (ROM). Not to mention, it creates ease for activities of daily living and exercise.
Most people believe they’re either flexible or they aren’t, but flexibility is a wide spectrum that can be improved with a regular routine. The way you approach stretching is going to impact your results and whether you stick it out long-term to reap the benefits.
Definitions from National Academy of Sports Medicine
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching is not only an amazing tool for your physical health but has proven benefits for your mental wellbeing, too.
Long-term benefits of stretching include:
• Improved posture and strength when combined with exercise
• Increased joint mobility and range of motion
• Better mobility and ease when performing activities of daily living
• Improved overall quality of life
• Better sleep quality and reduced pain and discomfort
• Higher confidence to engage in other activities and build trust in the body
• Increased total body hydration and circulation
• Downregulation of the nervous system from fight or flight to rest and digest
Types of Stretching
The two most popular and effective types of stretching are static stretching and active stretching. Each serves a distinct purpose and offers the benefits listed above.
Static stretches are great for beginners or for experienced exercisers who are familiar with stretching but haven’t established a consistent routine.
Static stretches are held for a minimum of 30 seconds and involve holding the muscle in a fixed position, without movement, for a specific time – usually 30-45 seconds.
Holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds allows the person stretching to get into a comfortable position and assess how they feel, relax into any discomfort, breathe deeply and hold the position. This allows the muscles to relax and be prepared for more dynamic movements after the stretch session.
Because these stretches require longer hold times, it’s best to perform static stretching once the body is warmed up: after a walk, at the end of a workout, after sitting in the sauna, etc.
Active stretches, sometimes referred to as dynamic stretches, are performed on specific areas of the body to prepare them for sports or weight training. For example, a swimmer might do a series of arm circles before laps or a runner might do a few rounds of standing hip circles before hitting the trail.
Active stretches do stretch the muscles, but the stretch is not held at the end of the range of motion. These stretches are meant to get the body moving, to build heat and prepare the body to move in multiple planes of motion.
Active stretches help the body retain flexibility, which means that you’ll likely notice more freedom of movement and less tension after active versus static stretches.
Regardless of the type of stretch, blood flow and circulation are improved, and hydrated muscle fibers are gently pulled to their full length, aided by connective tissue that helps realign any disorganized muscle fibers to help restore the muscle back to health.
Timing of Stretching
Most people hold stretches for too short a time, not getting the full benefits of the stretch. Rushing to get to the workout, discomfort in the stretch sensations, and not knowing how to stretch certain muscles are just a few of the reasons why someone might not hold them long enough.
If you want the full benefits of stretching, you need to both hold the stretch long enough and stretch frequently.
The type of stretch and area being stretched have little influence on hold times as the time is recommended based on the category of stretch – static versus active.
Even when you’re feeling tighter in one muscle compared to another, it’s important to note that there is no increase in muscle elongation after 2 to 3 rounds of static stretching. Some people may experience reduced tension by holding a stretch longer or feel better after they stretch a muscle that feels more tense longer than one that feels more limber. As long as there is no pain, you can vary the time a stretch is held beyond what’s recommended.
Benefits of Holding Stretching Long Enough
• Allow the stretcher to get comfortable holding the position
• All the muscles to relax and prime them for more dynamic movements
• Allow the stretcher to relax into any discomfort and breathe deeply in the stretch
• Decrease the risk of injury overtime by increasing flexibility and mobility
• Help joints move through their full range of motion
• Help the body establish healthy movement patterns
• Induce a relaxation response in the body that signals to the body that it’s time to stop resisting and start relaxing
Stretching Best Practices
In order to see results from stretching, you need a safe and sustainable routine. These 6 best practices will ensure you’re set up for success:
- This is the first, most important and nonnegotiable tip – do not stretch to the point of pain. Pain can be any number of sensations including burning, popping, tingling, pins and needles in the site of the stretch or surrounding muscles. Stretching through discomfort is okay and the difference is that one can be held with relative comfort while the other cannot. Pain is potentially dangerous and could be a warning sign that tissue damage might occur if the stretch continues. At the first feeling of pain, stop, take a deep breath and reposition.
- Wear comfortable clothing to allow freedom of movement when standing, sitting or lying down.
- Always stretch the same muscles on both sides of the body, no matter how one side feels compared to the other. If you feel that one side is tighter or more restricted than the other, you can repeat the stretches on that side until it feels even with the other.
- Always use controlled movements and hold the stretch for the recommended amount of time.
- Use a stretch strap if you’d like to take a stretch deeper but don’t feel like you have to go to your end range to get the full benefits. Remember, don’t stretch to the point of pain.
- Exhale into the stretch to release tension – if you’re holding your breath, you may be stretching too deeply.
I recommend stretching for shorter periods every day or every other day versus stretching the same muscles in the same way for longer periods daily – moderation mixed with consistency is the key to a proper stretching routine.
There is no one size fits all answer to when you might see the benefits of stretching. However, you may start to notice reduced tension, more comfort getting into the stretch, improved range of motion and circulation within 2 to 5 weeks if you stretch at least 4x each week.
Developing a consistent stretching routine can help improve your flexibility, mobility and range of motion, making it easier and safer to exercise and perform activities of daily living.
There is a lot of misinformation about stretching and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. Focus on large muscle groups, length of time each stretch is held, breath and frequency for best results. Results take time and are different for every person but adhering to these simple guidelines will yield lasting results. Take your time – happy stretching!