Stretching is an activity that most of us should be doing more of, regardless of how active we are in our day to day lives. Stretching maintains the health of our joints and reduces the chances of injury. Muscles become tight without stretching, which puts them at risk of tearing.
When it comes to stretching there is a right and wrong way to do it. So here are a few key points to consider when stretching:
Warm Up First
Most people consider stretching as their warm up, but you should actually mobilise a bit first. This can be as simple as marching on the spot, completing a brief walk, and moving your joints through their range of motion – for example bending and extending your knees. A warm up can start slow and become more dynamic to get the body ready for stretching, as well as to increase the tissue elasticity and blood flow.
Target Specific Muscles
When you stretch you want to target a specific muscle or group of muscles. Muscles are not isolated entities – they are all connected via fascia, which means that it is nearly impossible to only stretch one muscle, but you can still focus on one particular muscle or group, which is the one you want to ensure is definitely a part of the stretch. So if you stretch your quads, you will probably stretch the psoas as well, but the quads are still being stretched optimally. Before you start a stretch you will want to consider what exactly you are aiming to stretch, otherwise there will be little benefit.
When you stretch, you should avoid bouncing or pulsing, as this can force the muscle to push beyond where it can comfortably stretch and make the muscle susceptible to injury. Hold the stretches static, and when ready you can deepen the stretch and take it further if it feels comfortable. The stretch should be held in a comfortable position, and no pain should be felt in the muscles or joints – a good stretch should feel like a nice release.
How do you know if you have taken a stretch too far? There is an easy way to check – can you breathe? When people stretch they tend to hold their breath, but if you are holding the stretch comfortably you should be able to continue to take normal breaths. If you cannot breathe normally or you are holding your breath then you are probably holding the stretch beyond what you should be. Breathing helps to keep each stretch mindful, so you are fully aware of your body’s response to the stretch.
If you stretch once and then never do it again, the chances are the benefits of doing that stretch will be minimal. However, if you stretch consistently everyday then you can increase the resting length of short muscles and help to relieve tightness. How often though? It depends on your schedule and commitments but you should try to stretch once or twice a day for 10 minutes a time. If you are exercising or doing a workout then you should incorporate stretches into your warm up and cool down as well.
Take It Slowly
Stretching is not an activity to rush. Take it slowly, move carefully and mindfully, which will ensure that you are completing the stretch correctly, and so you do not injure yourself. If you are not holding a stretch correctly then you will probably not actually be stretching the muscle that you are targeting, so the benefits will be limited. It is best to allow stretching to flow gently from one to another – it can help to have a routine of stretches so you can maintain this flow.
The question of how long to hold a stretch is a big one. My advice is always to hold a stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, as this is the time it takes for a physical change to occur to the fascia. The optimum stretch is 30-60 seconds, but generally speaking a stretch can be held for a number of minutes, provided you are careful about the movement. Any overstretching can put you at a risk of injury, and after many minutes there is little extra benefit to gain from the stretch.
Engage Abdominals and Maintain Posture
The abdominal muscles are key to posture, and it is essential to engage them when you stretch. How do you know if you are “engaging” your abdominals? Put your hand on your belly, and as you breathe out say “ahhh” you will feel your abdominals contract. In other words you are getting your abdominals to draw inwards. Posture is an important aspect of stretching, and it helps to feel as though your head is being pulled with a piece of string – and kept straight stacked above your spine and not falling forward. If you touch your toes for example, do not pull your head forward to your knees – instead pull your chest towards your thighs and keep your head centred above your spine. Of course some stretches require your head to be in different positions, so this is not a rule for every stretch you might do.
Is Stretching Really That Good?
You may have heard some people say that stretching is overrated. The truth is, while stretching is incredibly beneficial it is not the be all and end all; because it needs to be combined with strengthening exercise, movement and even manual therapies like massage. All of this will help you to keep your muscles in their optimum condition. But stretching is still a good habit to get into, because it maintains the health of your joints and muscles, minimises the chances of injuries and it also feels super relaxing!
What about hypermobile people?
Individuals with hypermobility need to be especially cautious when they stretch. I will be covering how to stretch with hypermobility in a future article. If you are unsure about how to stretch with hypermobility, seek advice before you begin.
The Anatomy of Stretching by Brad Walker
Stretching: Pocket Book Edition by Bob Anderson
The Posture Pain Fix by Rosalind Ferry