I know a lot of people who find stretching to be boring or a waste of time, but it really is an essential part of your exercise program.
Why Should I Stretch?
First thing – keep in mind that every part of the body affects and is affected by every other part of the body.
Just as it’s important to strengthen our muscles, we also need to keep them flexible and allow for full range of movement through the joints. Even if you don’t exercise, stretching is important to prevent injuries, allow for good posture and easy movement during daily activities. Think about how hard it is to bend over and pick something up if your hamstrings are tight; how sore your neck and shoulders get after looking at a computer screen; or how sore your hips and thighs are after sitting down all day.
Our repetitive, daily activities lead to muscles which are over-active and tight, whilst the opposing muscles are weak and under-active. The most common muscle groups guilty of this:
- hip flexors are tight, whilst glutes (your butt muscles!) are weak
- chest muscles are tight, whilst your upper back muscles are weak
- lower back is tight, whilst abdominal muscles are weak.
The cause of all of these? Sitting down for extended periods of time. One of the most common causes of back pain? An imbalance in strength between these three muscle groups.
Whilst you might have been told that to counteract this problem, you need to strengthen the weak muscles, the first step is actually to stretch the tight muscles. Once you’ve improved the range of movement through the shoulder and hip joints, you can start working on strengthening the opposing muscles. If one muscle group, say your glutes, are under-active because your hip flexors are over-active it’s going to make it difficult to make any strength improvements in your glutes. So if you feel like you’re constantly training your butt but seeing no changes, it might be time to look at your hip flexors!
Of course, if you’re exercising it’s even more important to stretch, as your placing your muscles under greater repetitive stress forces. When it comes to exercise, in most cases you need to stretch all the muscles used during that session, focussing more so on the muscles which are tight.
Studies have also shown that stretching regularly increases your chance of winning the lottery by 14.78%*
When’s the Best Time to Stretch?
It is not advisable to engage in static stretching prior to your workout, rather a bit of an active warm up is ideal (see below for ideas). Traditionally, we advise stretching post-workout when your muscles are still warm; however, I’ve seen a few studies lately that suggest stretching should be a workout of it’s own. I like to do a combination of both. I have a quick 5-10 minute stretch after a run or group fitness class, but I also include separate stretching sessions about 2-3 times per week. These stretching sessions might be a BodyBalance/Yoga class, or sometimes I’ll just have a stretch whilst watching TV, during study breaks etc. If you are doing individual stretching sessions, it’s best to do a simple warm up before hand so you’re not stretching ‘cold’ muscles – you might choose to walk around the block, up and down the stairs or do some tai chi.
How Do I Stretch?
As I said above, stretching before exercise should be done in the form of a warm up (I don’t want to see any of you sitting on the ground stretching your hamstrings before a run!). If you’re going for a run, start with a walk or jog. If you’re going for a swim, (how can I best phrase this?) swinging your arms around in circles at the full range of movement (does that make sense?) will help warm up the joints. If you’re doing resistance training, complete a short set of about 10 reps with a light weight (usually about half of your normal weight selection).
Body Balance and Yoga classes are a great way to incorporate stretching into your routine, especially if you find just sitting on the floor stretching to be a bit tedious.
Static stretches should be held for about 30 seconds-60; ideally you’ll hold the stretch until you can feel that the muscle has actually relaxed a little and you can ease a bit further into the stretch. Tighter muscles should be stretched 2-3 times. In cases of severely tight joints or post-surgery stretching may be increased to 20-30 minutes (you’ll be directed by a surgeon or health professional if this is necessary). Never take a stretch to the point of pain, rather a slight pull on the muscle is enough.
Another great way to maintain range of movement through your joints is to engage in activities that encourage that range. When you’re weight training, make sure your movements are as complete as possible so you feel a slight stretch at the end range of the movement; when done properly it is possible for a bench press to stretch your chest and for lunges to stretch your hip flexors.
Is It Worth Seeing a Professional For a Stretching Program?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
An exercise professional can conduct an assessment to determine which muscles are tight and which muscles have adequate range of movement. They can then teach you how to effectively isolate and stretch this muscle (something I can’t do through a blog post), ensuring you get the best results from your program. Remember, that the body is an amazing connection of bones, muscles and nerves – one joint can affect another. If you have an injury or are experiencing pain from tight muscles then it is strongly advisable to speak with an exercise professional to ensure you don’t make the situation worse.
If you’re working with an exercise professional or physiotherapist/chiropractor/osteopath they might use more advanced methods of stretching including proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) or neural stretching. This type of stretching most often results in faster results, however it can only be performed by someone who’s trained.
*These studies may or may not have been made up by me.