Stretching is very important to maintain flexibility and to avoid injury while exercising. However, like most exercises, technique is very important to make sure you are doing the stretch right and to make sure you are getting the optimal benefits from the stretch. Stretching should be done before you begin exercising and after you are finished exercising.
When done properly, stretching can do more than just increase flexibility. Some of the benefits of stretching include:
- enhanced physical fitness
- enhanced ability to learn and perform skilled movements
- increased mental and physical relaxation
- enhanced development of body awareness
- reduced risk of injury to joints, muscles and tendons
- reduced muscle soreness
- reduced muscular tension
- increased suppleness due to stimulation of the production of chemicals which lubricate connective tissues
- reduced severity of painful menstruation for women
Unfortunately, even those who stretch do not always stretch properly, which means they don’t reap all the benefits stretching offers. Some of the most common mistakes made when stretching are:
- improper warm-up
- inadequate rest between workouts
- performing the wrong exercise
- performing exercises in the wrong sequence
Always warm up before stretching
It is very important that you perform a general warm-up before you stretch. It is not a good idea to attempt to stretch before your muscles are warm. Warming up can do more than just loosen stiff muscles; when done properly, it can actually improve performance. On the other hand, an improper warm-up, or no warm up at all, can greatly increase your risk of injury from engaging in athletic activities.
A warm-up should be slow, rhythmic exercise of large muscle groups done before an activity. Riding a bicycle or walking works well. This provides the body with a period of adjustment between rest and activity. The warm-up should last about five to 10 minutes and should be similar to the activity that you are about to do, but at a lower intensity. Once you have warmed up at a low intensity and your muscles are warm, you can now stretch.
Static stretching involves a slow, gradual and controlled elongation of the muscles through a full range of motion and held for 15 to 30 seconds in the furthest comfortable position (without pain). This is the first and most important stretching principle. All stretches for each muscle group should be done by using this static form of stretching.
Once you have performed your static stretches, you should engage in some light dynamic stretching: Leg raises and arm swings in all directions are both good examples.
The last part of your warm-up should be devoted to performing movements that are a “watered down” version of the movements that you will be performing during your athletic activity. Long toss for throwing, bounding for runners and simple agility drills for other sports would be acceptable.
Perform developmental stretching following athletic activity, during your cool down. Repeat static stretching of major muscle groups as the last part of the cool down which should last for five to 10 minutes total.
Other times to stretch
Stretching should not be limited to before and after exercise. Some other good times to stretch are:
- in the morning after you rise from bed
- in the evening before bed
- when you do not have a chance to exercise
- between sets in the weight room
- while relaxing
- before and after yard or house work
- or just when you feel like it
Stretches you should avoid
The following list of common stretches should be avoided. They have been proven to do more harm than benefit:
- Yoga plough—Lying on your back and bringing your legs up and touching your knees to your ears. Causes excessive pressure on low back.
- Traditional backbend—This is arching. Causes compression on spinal discs.
- Hurdler’s stretch—Sitting on the floor with one leg out straight and the other leg fully flexed behind you. The two-legged version is twice as bad. These stretches cause excessive pressure on knee ligaments.
- Straight-legged toe touches—Standing and bending forward and touching toes with straight legs. Bad for low back.
- Torso twists—Can strain knee ligaments and causes tissue tears of core muscles.
- Inverted stretches—Any stretch where you hang upside down. This increases blood pressure and may even rupture blood vessels particularly in the eyes.
For more information about stretching and sports injury prevention, contact the specialists at Saint Vincent Sports Medicine at 814-835-2035.
Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.