Stretching is a key—although often overlooked—the health benefits of stretching are huge and a big part of a successful workout routine. Not so long ago, I decided to get back to the gym after a several-year hiatus.
The first workout was great. I got the endorphin rush and post-workout high, and I felt really good about getting back to a regular exercise routine. I was stiff and sore that evening, but not more than expected.
I went back several times that week, and each time was pretty much the same degree of awesome despite some expected stiffness. By the end of the week, I could tell that I was getting just a bit stronger and faster.
It Was Great While It Lasted
By the end of the second week, I began to have trouble with sore feet. I thought I just needed new sneakers, but the pain kept getting worse. Soon, my legs started hurting too, and it was more than just post-exercise stiffness.
By the end of the third week, my left Achilles tendon was so sore that I needed to take a few days off to heal. I felt stiffer and less flexible than before, and other muscles were beginning to protest too.
What went wrong? I am still relatively young, not terribly out-of-shape, and no history of injuries in the areas that were hurting. When I spoke to my massage therapist and to the trainers at the gym, and then did some reading, I realized that I had been skipping a very important part of successfully working out – Stretching.
It seems so simple, basic, and low key that it’s easy to skip or shorten. Stretching done right helps prevent injury, improves mobility, and decreases post-workout stiffness. (Note: Stretching cannot actually prevent an injury, but it can help make an injury less likely.)
A word to the wise: I am not an expert on stretching, strength training, or fitness. Always consult a professional before starting a new or more intensive workout program or stretch. Stretching should NOT hurt—if it does, stop immediately.
When to Stretch
At that point, I hadn’t been working out, and certainly not running, for several years, so I should have known better than to try to keep up with a bunch of athletes.
I did a few short stretches before we started. By the time I finished the mile my legs felt like they were on fire. By noon, I could hardly walk. The whole next week was gradually diminishing torture.
What did I do wrong? (Other than the obvious mistake of doing too much too soon. 😊)
Stretching correctly would have helped. Its not just how, but when. As I’ve learned since that epic beach run, the best time to stretch is after warming up, and then again at the end of the workout.
Warm muscles can stretch without tearing, and stretched muscles can exercise better, so the routine is to warm up for a short time, do some passive stretches, continue light exercise for a bit, go hard for however long you want or have time for, then cool down and stretch again.
How to Stretch
There is no one-size-fits all stretching routine. What is best for you depends on your fitness level, your preferred exercise (weightlifting isn’t going to need exactly the same as track, or basketball, or rock climbing), and any injuries you have had.
However, there are a few general guidelines to follow.
Stretch after warming up. This was mentioned above, and I talk more about it below.
Do passive rather than active stretches. What this means is getting into a position and holding it for 10 to 15 seconds. No bouncing toe touches or lunges. (I am aware that the definitions of active and passive are more complex than what I present here. Again, I am not an expert on this topic, and the information here is aimed at the beginner.)
Don’t force a muscle or limb beyond what you can comfortably move. If it hurts, stop. When you stretch, the goal is to gently lengthen muscle fibers and increase range of motion.
When you force a muscle beyond its current painless range of motion, some of the small fibers within the muscle are tearing, and scar tissue from that injury can actually decrease flexibility and range of motion.
Spend between 5 and 20 minutes stretching, including at least several minutes at the beginning and several at the end.
What To Avoid When Stretching
Stretching cold muscles. An older friend likes to go for walks through her suburban neighborhood, and sometimes I join her. She has a routine of stretching before she sets a foot out the door—partly because she doesn’t want the neighbors to see her!—and if she forgets she is concerned about an injury from exercising before stretching.
It made sense to me, until I realized that stretching before warming up is counterproductive. It is like sticking a rubber band in the freezer—if you stretch it before it gets warmed up, it will break much more easily.
When you stretch cold muscles, you are far more likely to get tiny tears in the fascia (the protective covering over each muscle). Those tiny tears increase your risk of injury and pain.
It is better to exercise lightly first for several minutes, like jogging in place on an exercise mat, doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, or another low impact, low stretch exercise. Once you’ve broken a light sweat, pause to stretch.
Too hard too soon. A second mistake that is all too easy to make is to move straight from stretching to a hard workout. Better to stretch, drill (light workout) then move to a “real” workout.
It takes longer, but the results are going to be a lot better, and you will avoid many of the injuries and tightness that result from skipping the in-between step of drilling.
Ballistic stretching. Vigorous lunges and active stretches that move into and beyond the point of resistance are not the best way to stretch. When you bounce into and out of a stretch, you are using the resistance of your muscles to bounce.
This activates the stretch response (which short-circuits any muscle lengthening that might happen) and may also cause micro-tears or other injuries in the muscle fibers.
Active stretching—where you are working against the resistance of a device, your own weight, or a partner—is fine; ballistic stretching is not.
Have a Good Stretch
You can practice good stretching right now. From a seated or standing position, do about a minute of arm and upper body warmup exercises, such as moving gently in rhythm to music, light shadow boxing, or other forms of movement.
Once you feel a warm-up and loosened, stretch both arms above your head (or straight out in front of you, if shoulder movement is restricted) and hold for up to 30 seconds. Drop your arms, then repeat, this time leaning to the right. Repeat again, leaning to the left.
Ahhh! Doesn’t that feel good?
How have you incorporated stretching into your exercise routine? What have you found that works, or doesn’t? Are you stretching on your own or do you stretch and workout at a gym? Tell us about below, and share your wisdom on what you think the health benefits of stretching are to you!