When most people think of fitness they think of cardiovascular and strength exercise, but there is another important component of fitness—stretching. If you want to develop and maintain optimal fitness, be sure to include stretching in your daily regimen. Stretching is not only critical to athletic performance, but to overall health.
Stretching refers to a practice of elongating a muscle or muscle group to its fullest length. Though we may not realize it, stretching is actually a natural, instinctive behavior. Upon waking, most of us will instinctively reach our arms overhead and stretch from fingers to toes. Our body naturally craves a “stretch” after long periods of sitting or inactivity. This natural instinct is your body’s way of telling you that stretching is good.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching offers numerous health and fitness benefits:
- Relaxation: Put simply, stretching feels good. It’s an excellent way to cool down and relax after an invigorating workout. Furthermore, research has shown that stretching can lower blood pressure and improve artery function. It’s a natural stress reliever.
- Increase flexibility: Flexibility refers to the degree to which an individual muscle will lengthen. As we age, our muscles grow shorter and tighter and we become less flexible. As a result, we become more susceptible to injuries. Stretching is an effective way to maintain and increase flexibility. A regular stretching routine will keep you flexible—and hopefully, injury-free.
- Improve circulation: Stretching increases the blood flow to the muscles, which not only helps to nourish the muscles, but also helps to eliminate waste byproducts from muscle tissue.
- Eliminate pain: Many of us experience muscle tightness in our quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors. What we may not realize is that this muscle tightness is a common cause of low back pain. Short, tight muscles result in impaired movement patterns and compensation, which leads to low back pain. A regular stretching routine can help solve this common problem.
Stretching for Athletes
Understanding the importance of stretching can greatly benefit anyone participating in sports and other athletic activities. Stretching not only increases flexibility but also minimizes the risk of injuries, such as tendon and muscle tears.
When muscles are dormant, they shorten and can feel tight. Then, when activity is attempted, the muscles are unable to extend completely. In some cases, this sudden demand on the muscles can cause an injury. Stretching before your exercise helps keep the muscles healthy, strong, and flexible and enhances performance by improving range of motion. Knowing which muscles you want to stretch and stretching them correctly are important factors in getting the optimal benefits out of your stretching.
How and When Should I Stretch?
Stretching regimens should be performed at least three times per week, as well as before and after any games or practices. Be sure to warm the muscles up for 5-10 minutes before you begin stretching. A warm-up consists of a light version of exercise to relax and loosen the muscles, such as shooting a few baskets. The goal is to increase blood flow to the muscles and tendons. (You won’t need to do this after your workout because the muscles are already loose.)
Hold stretches gently for 20 to 45 seconds, repeating each stretch 2-3 times for any muscle groups you are loosening up. Pain should not be a part of stretching. It takes time for muscles to tighten up, so take your time during stretching to achieve maximum benefit.
Dynamic and Static Stretching (Warm-Up Vs. Cool-Down)
Dynamic stretches are best utilized before your workout or game. These controlled movements prepare the muscles and other soft tissues for the upcoming activity by increasing muscle temperature and decreasing stiffness.
Dynamic stretches include:
- Walking lunge: With hands on hips, step and lunge without allowing the knee to pass over the ankle
- Torso twist: Gentle twisting with feet shoulder width apart and arms at your side bent at a 90° angle
- Leg swing: Front to back slowly through the full range of motion
Static stretching involves moving the muscle to the extent of its range of motion. Although static stretching increases flexibility and thus, decreases the risk of injury, it should be performed after a workout/activity or as a part of your stretching maintenance routine. This is because performing these types of stretches before a strenuous workout can limit the muscles’ ability to react quickly.
Static stretches include:
- Hamstring stretch: With your back flat and knee straight (not locked), extend your leg and lean forward to feel the stretch in the back of the leg
- Quadriceps stretch: Holding your ankle, pull the leg back toward the buttock to stretch the front of the thigh.
- Posterior capsule stretch: Holding your opposite arm just above the elbow, pull the arm across the body to stretch the shoulder.
During any stretching routine, be sure to engage your abdominal muscles to protect your back.
In order to gain the benefits of stretching, it’s important to stretch properly:
- Warm up. Never stretch a cold muscle; it can result in injury. Instead, warm up with some cardiovascular activity prior to stretching. This will help make your muscles more pliable and conducive to stretching.
- Breathe. Sometimes we’re inclined to hold our breath when stretching, but this is counterproductive because it results in tightness and resistance. Instead, breathe into a stretch. Breathe slowly and deeply. As you exhale, you may feel yourself naturally sink a little deeper into the stretch.
- Be gentle. Never force a stretch. Instead, gently ease your way into a stretch and let your body dictate how far you can go. Flexibility will naturally increase over time—forcing a stretch will only result in injury, not increased flexibility.
- Be consistent. The best way to build flexibility is with a consistent stretching routine. Aim for 3 to 5 days per week. If you commit to a stretching program, you will see results.