Stretching and Flexibility
Coaches, athletes, and weekend warriors alike have heard mixed messages about stretching in recent years, leading to confusion about if, when, and how to stretch.
You may have heard a few of these incorrect statements:
"Only stretch after exercising, or else you can injure yourself"
Truth: Stretching before exercise can prevent injury and get your body ready to exercise. You can injure yourself if you do not warm up first. Never stretch a cold body!
"Only ballet dancers or gymnasts need to stretch."
Truth: Every body can benefit from improving or maintaining their flexibility. All types of athletes, from power lifters to tai chi experts should be including stretching in their activities.
"Hold the stretch for at least a full minute or else its not doing anything."
Truth: Holding a stretch for just 30 seconds or so is effective to begin to loosen and lengthen muscles. Particularly tight muscles may need closer to 60 seconds to feel a benefit.
"Bounce a stretch, don't hold it in a static position"
Truth: Bouncing stretches can tell a muscle to tighten and protect itself, which can result in a pulled muscle or strain. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends against ballistic or bouncing stretches.
"I've never been flexible so it's not worth stretching"
Truth: People who at baseline have higher muscle tension and restricted joint movement are actually who can benefit the most from stretching to increase their flexibility.
When hitting the gym or the local trail some exercisers skip stretching because they are self-conscious. The truth is, stretching is the best way to increase flexibility, and done correctly and at the right time can help maintain joint and muscle health.
Can it be done too much? Is there anyone who shouldn't be stretching?
Yes, but the vast majority of people need to stretch more rather than less. Individuals with diagnosed hypermobility conditions (i.e. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) or instability syndromes (hip dysplasia), should avoid excessive stretching of the affected joints, as this can encourage further relaxation of the tendons and ligaments supporting the already unstable joints.
Here are some keys to stretching successfully:
#1. Do it regularly, instead of just when your muscles feel tight
Waiting until you wake up the next day after a workout or feel tight and sore is a losing battle. Stretching at this time may relieve some of the discomfort, but some studies suggest stretching after working out is more effective in reducing muscular soreness. Additionally, if working to increase flexibility, stretching should be done regularly (daily or at least several days a week) to see progress.
#2. Build stretching into your athletic routine
Warmup, stretching and recovery should all be built into your fitness or gym routine, just like the rest of the training you do. Try including a 5-10 minute warmup, 5-10 minute cooldown and 5 minute stretching routine into every workout. Attending a fitness class? Get there 5 minutes early to get warm, and stay 5-10 minutes after to stretch and cooldown if those things are not built into the class time. Parents, avoid late drop-offs or early pick-ups for your young athletes playing team sports, as this time is often used for these critical parts of the athletic regimen. For athletes who take private lessons for sports like dance, fencing or figure skating, communicate with the coach or trainer about expectations and plan accordingly. Often, athletes are expected to be fully warmed up and have stretched by the time their private lesson or class starts.
#3. Pick the stretches suited to your activity
If you've ever watched a college football team warmup and stretch, what you see the kicker doing looks different from the defensive end, and for good reason. Each sport places unique demands on the body, and stretches should match the flexibility and endurance needs of the sport. Not sure what you should be doing? A few good resources are listed below. For most land-based sports, stretching the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip abductors (IT band), adductors (inside thigh) and calf muscles (achilles) are good places to start.
Flexibility for Young Athletes (lower body stretches)