The dos and don'ts of stretching
How to stretch effectively and safely
Preparing correctly for an exercise session is as vital to your fitness training as the exercise itself. Stretching correctly will complement your training efforts and improve your body's posture and suppleness. Here's a guide on how to stretch more effectively.
Stretching vital muscles
'Use it or lose it' is an often quoted maxim, but it is never more appropriate than when talking about flexibility.
Think of a long car journey lasting several hours. When you arrive at your destination, the opportunity to climb out of the seat and stretch is extremely welcome and initially your movements are stiff and awkward. However, after stretching out, you feel much better and your normal mobility returns. Imagine if you had to undertake a long car journey every day – your flexibility would suffer badly – which returns us to the 'use it or lose it' maxim.
Everyone should have good flexibility, but due to modern lifestyles, frequently our natural flexibility is compromised and we end up far less supple than we could be. A regularstretching routine should be an integral part of your fitness program and it is as important as either cardiovascular or resistance training, bringing a whole range of benefits including:
Greater range of movement
Greater efficiency of movement
Reduced risk of injury
The positive feeling of being loose and supple
However, incorrect stretching technique is worse than no stretching at all, so follow the stretching dos and don’ts below and you will achieve safe, long-lasting flexibility gains.
Safe stretching protocols
Stretch at the end of a workout session
The ideal time to stretch is at the end of your workout. You will be thoroughly warmed-up and there will be good blood flow to your muscles. Flexibility training can be carried out as an isolated session or before other training, but only when the body has been completely warmed-up. Moderate cardiovascular (CV) exercise for 10 to 15 minutes is ideal for a warm-up. Additionally, your warm-up should be specifically targeted at the muscles you intend to stretch.
For example: stretches for the legs should be carried out after the legs have been warmed-up – walking, jogging or cycling are ideal because they all use the leg muscles. Upper body stretches will be far more effective after an exercise such as rowing, which uses many of the upper body muscles.
Relax while stretching
A second important factor when stretching is to be relaxed. Tension will inhibit your range of movement and prevent your muscles from stretching as effectively. Hence, you will not achieve maximum flexibility benefits. Another reason why stretching should be carried out at the end of your training session is that you will be more relaxed after your workout has finished than before, which equates to greater flexibility gains.
Gradually and carefully move your body or the limb being stretched into the stretch position. Once you feel slight tension in the muscle, hold the position. Avoid bouncing or any other movements, which could overstretch the muscle and result in injury.
Wait 15 seconds and then stretch further
After approximately 15 seconds, your body’s natural stretch inhibiting reflex will relax, allowing you to stretch a little more. Gently ease a little further into the stretch and hold for a further 15 seconds.
Keep breathing while stretching
Always keep your breathing easy and relaxed because that will reduce all-round muscular tension, which in turn will allow you to stretch further. Holding your breath will tense up your entire body, making stretching much less effective.
Hold the stretch
To get maximum stretching benefits, you need to hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. Stretching each muscle for just a few seconds brings virtually no flexibility benefits. Focus on maintaining correct posture whilst you hold the position so that you don’t over-relax and reduce your gains.
Stretching should invoke a mild feeling of ‘tightness’ or tension within the stretched muscle – and no more! Pain when stretching indicates injury or a muscle that has been overstretched. If you experience any pain at all, stop stretching immediately and never stretch beyond a ‘comfortable tightness’.
Rest and repeat stretches
A single stretch for each targeted muscle is very beneficial but two stretches for each muscle, separated by a short break of 30 seconds will help extend your range of movement further.
Target stretching twice a week
Ideally, stretch your major muscles after every workout but if that proves too time consuming, stretching twice a week is a suitable target. Far from detracting from your other training, substituting some stretching for a few extra minutes cardiovascular or resistance training will improve your overall fitness, not decrease it. If you can complete two, ten-minute stretching sessions each week, you are well on the road to keeping mobile, supple and injury free.
Stretching dos and don’ts
To make sure you always stretch safely, simply consult the dos and don’ts table below and you will get the most from your stretching program.
Ensure that the muscles being stretched are thoroughly warmed-up
Stretch at the end of your training session
Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds
Follow an all-over body program for stretching to avoid postural imbalances
Follow correct technique
Avoid pain, stretching should never be painful
Try and stretch cold muscles – it’s a recipe for injury
Stretch before your warm-up or workout
Bounce or rock whilst holding a stretch – you could overstretch and cause an injury
Hold a stretch for just a few seconds
Hold your breath
Focus on just leg stretches or just upper body stretches
Conclusions about stretching
Stretching is a great injury prevention strategy and also makes you feel loose and relaxed. Good quality stretching can also help correct imbalances, improve posture, extend limb range of motion and increase stride length.
Time spent returning shortened, tight muscles to their original length will provide considerably greater and longer term benefits than a few more minutes gym training or a couple of extra miles on the road. By following the stretching dos and don’ts, you won’t lose it because you regularly use it.