Flexibility, which requires an ability to move a joint through its full range of motion, has long been considered a key component of fitness, meaning that flexibility training should be included in everyone’s exercise program.
That said, while stretching has long been a mainstay of all types of workouts — from yoga and Pilates to simply stretching before a run or competition — there’s always been a surprising amount of controversy swirling around flexibility training.
There are two primary sources of that controversy:
1. What type of stretching to perform.
2. When to stretch to maximize benefits.
Before diving into the how and when of flexibility, let’s begin with why.
Why You Should Stretch
Regular stretching has been shown to improve posture, prevent or minimize pain throughout various regions of the body and improve movement patterns. This is especially important when it comes to performing — and retaining the ability to perform — what are called activities of daily living, or those tasks that are part of your everyday life, from work-related tasks to carrying groceries up a flight of stairs to lifting your children into a car seat. Flexibility is a vital component of maintaining quality of life as we age.
In the short term, flexibility training enhances the effectiveness of an exercise session by improving your ability to perform exercises through their full range of motion and with proper technique. Stretching may also help reduce soreness, relieve muscle tension, enhance the delivery of blood and nutrients to the muscles and promote recovery between workouts.
How You Should Stretch
There are several different ways to stretch, which is the source of some of the controversy:
— Ballistic stretching.
— Dynamic stretching.
— Static Stretching.
Ballistic stretching is used by some athletes to prepare for competition, but this bouncing-type movement is not widely advocated because it may be associated with an increased risk of injury.
Dynamic stretching, which is considerably safer, mimics movement patterns that will be used later in a workout or during a sporting event and is therefore appropriate during a warm-up.
Common examples of this include a sprinter performing long walking strides that emphasize hip extension before a race in order to prepare the body for high levels of explosiveness and a group fitness class doing high knee marches or walking lunges prior to moving to the higher-intensity conditioning portion of a class.
The most commonly seen type of flexibility training is static stretching, in which you stretch a muscle to the end of its range of motion, then hold that position. Current guidelines state that you should stretch all major muscle groups at least two or three days each week, and that each stretch should be to the point at which you feel tightness or slight discomfort and then held for 10 to 30 seconds (or 30 to 60 seconds for older adults).
When You Should Stretch
The timing of when to stretch has been the topic of a lot of research. Research has shown — perhaps counterintuitively — that static stretching performed prior to a workout or competition has potentially negative effects on muscular strength, muscular endurance, muscular power, balance and reaction time, all of which reduces performance. Not exactly the results we’re all looking for.
Therefore, static stretching is most beneficial during the cool-down period immediately following a workout when the muscles and connective tissues are sufficiently warm.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, is more appropriate for the warm-up period of a workout or class.
Tips for Stretching Safely
— Relax and breathe normally while stretching.
— Always keep your joints slightly bent, as opposed to locked in a fully extended or straight position.
— Avoid overstretching, as pushing a stretch well beyond your normal range of motion can cause serious injury.
— Avoid bouncing during static stretches. Instead, hold a position with a gentle pull to a point of tightness or mild discomfort for the appropriate amount of time.
— Stretch throughout the day, particularly if your job requires a lot of sitting.
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