The Health Benefits of Stretching

The Benefits of Stretching

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

The Health Benefits of StretchingBy 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

The Health Benefits of StretchingLast winter, I went on a retreat, staying in a lovely beach house for a week. Every morning, there was an optional beach run. On the last day, I decided to join.

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

The Health Benefits of StretchingStretching 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!

22 Comments

  1. Ohh! I think I’m also one of the few people that is getting things wrong with stretching…Lol
    Now I understand how to do it right. From stretching to light workout, then hitting it hard on the court. I’m sure writing this where I won’t forget in a hurry.

    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks for visiting. I am glad you found my article and it was useful to you. Yes sometimes writing it down definitely helps. I hope to see you visit again soon. I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. Be Well!

  2. I must confess that stretching has contributed so much to the success of my workout regimen. It works by keeping my muscles ready for the work ahead of them. But sometimes, I feel lazy and want to overlook it. This is a timely reminder for me, and I’m revisiting it again.

    • Hi Alfie,

      Thank you for visiting today. I am glad you have already implemented stretching into your workout routine. You would be surprised how many people I find do not implement stretching into their workout routine.

      Even though you may want to skip it I am glad you push through and always stretch. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience. Thanks for stopping by and adding so much value to this topic today. Be Well!

  3. Stretching is a critical activity that I do everyday and helps my body feel much better.
    You have laid out your information very clearly and made it clear when you should stretch or should not stretch.
    Doing a warmup before any workout, or stretching routine, is so essential for keeping the human body healthy.
    Great post and I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!

    • Hi Jesse,

      Thank you for visiting. That is awesome to hear that you stretch every day. You would be surprised at how many people do not take the time to stretch properly. I am glad you mentioned about the warmup. It is really critical that it is done and not jumping straight to stretching prior to working out. I appreciate the value you added to this article today. Be Well!

  4. This is what I keep telling my students but only a few of them listen to me. To have an effective workout without hurting your muscles at the end, it is important you first warm up the muscles before jumping into the workout session. And stretching is a great way to do that. I need to share this post with them also.

    • Hi Seadals,

      Thanks for visiting. I am glad you found this article useful. I agree with you in that without proper stretching you can definitely hurt yourself and actually pretty severely.

      Too many make an attempt to start physical activities without being educated and one of the most fundamental things about physical activity is proper stretching. I appreciate the value you added to this topic today. Be Well!

  5. Fantastic! Are you a trainer or a physical therapist? You seem to understand this stuff so much. Kudos!

    • Hi Vivian,

      Thanks for stopping by today to learn about stretching. I have worked in the medical field for over 20 years but more than anything I just want to share what I have been trained on so as to help as many as I can. I hope to see you back here again soon. Be Well!

  6. I’m guilty of this. Now I know better. You are such a blessing.

    • Hi Isabella,

      At one point or another we have all been guilty of not stretching as we should so do not feel bad about it. The key is to correct the error and also help others with the knowledge you have gained. Hope to see you again here soon. Be Well!

  7. I usually do my stretching at the gym and it has in many ways helped my fitness goals. Everyone needs to learn the art of stretching. Both the old and young need to incorporate it into their fitness regimen. Good thing is that this post has comprehensively highlighted everything we need to know about stretching. We all need it.

    • Hi Smith,

      I appreciate your visit today. That is great you are utilizing stretching. I agree age is not a determining factor as all should stretch. I am glad you found some ideas in this article you found useful. I hope to see you back again soon and I really appreciate your viewpoint on this topic. Be Well!

  8. I’m always scared of going to the gym for any hard workouts. Can I do some stretching every morning in my home and still be fit physically? Pls, I need to know.

    • Hi Samantha,

      Thank you for visiting. You surely can do some stretching at your home. I will send you some of my favourite youtube videos that I use for stretching and working out. Thank you for your question. Be Well!

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for visiting. Yes stretching is definitely important and necessary. A lack of it can surely cause you difficulties. I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. Be Well!

  9. Is there anything like overstretching? I seriously don’t want to overdo this. I feel like considering only stretching on days I’m not able to hit the gym but I want to be sure there is no limit to it.

    • Hi Barrck,

      Thank you for visiting. Yes actually you can strain or even pull your muscle. Normally this happens due to overuse, improper use, or even fatigue. You normally would see cases of an overstretched muscle in your lower back, neck, shoulders, or even hamstring.

      It is always important to stretch properly. Thank you for your question today and I hope to see you here again soon. Be Well!

  10. You are doing a really good job here, Nate. Pls, keep it up. You are helping a lot of people with your posts – even more than you can imagine. I look forward to the time you will talk about skincare tips here. I really can’t wait for it. Lol

    • Hi Pamela,

      Thank you for your kind words. I definitely have a plan to provides some articles about skincare in the future. I appreciate you visiting and being supportive of Healthy Options Online. Be Well!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*