When performed correctly, stretching can increase flexibility and range of motion around your joints, which can improve performance and reduce your risk of injury
Static versus dynamic stretching
There are two well recognized types of stretching – static and dynamic. Static stretching is the most common form of stretching. Sometimes considered “old school,” it involves passive stretches held in place for a sustained period (10-30 seconds) without movement. To perform a static stretch, a joint is manually positioned to its end range of movement. Examples of static stretches include a standing lunge stretch or overhead triceps stretch. Static stretching isolates specific muscle groups and is more commonly performed at the end of an exercise session.
Dynamic stretching is movement-based, often performed before an activity and involves movements that simulate that activity. The speed and intensity of the movement may increase as a dynamic stretch is performed. Examples of dynamic stretches include side lunges or arm circles Dynamic stretching helps to increase blood circulation while also increasing compliance of muscles and the surrounding soft tissue. Performing these types of stretches prior to an exercise session is generally regarded as a good practice.
Flexibility required for daily tasks
Increased flexibility can enhance your ability to perform certain tasks. Conversely, tight muscles and stiff tissues can hinder simple, daily movements. For instance, tight neck and upper trapezius muscles may inhibit head rotation. This can interfere with your ability to turn your head from side to side while driving a car. Thus stretching your neck muscles can improve the degree of next rotation, and enhance driving safety.
Another common example of poor flexibility involves limitations to the range of arm movement. Tight pectoral muscles on the front of the chest can hinder external rotation of your shoulder (and arm) upward, outward, and backward. For example, shoulder stiffness represents an obstacle to putting on a heavy jacket or reaching behind you in the car to grab your handbag or rucksack. Stretching the pectoralis muscles increases your shoulder’s range of movement and allows you to perform this task more easily.
Stretching and injury prevention
Stretching can also help prevent injuries. Muscles work best when they respond quickly and efficiently to change. If a muscle is tight, its ability to react and adapt is diminished due to its inability to lengthen. Injured muscles may not be able to support joints, which places you at risk of joint injury, as well.
An example of a classic injury that results from “tight” muscles involves the hamstrings. Hamstrings are the muscle group at the back of your thigh. They are responsible for bending your knees. They lengthen when you extend your leg forward, and contract when you bend your knee. In order to elongate your stride or gait when you run or walk at a faster pace than normal, your hamstrings need to be able to lengthen adequately. If your hamstrings are not able to lengthen adequately, you risk tearing the hamstring muscle belly. Hamstring tears often occur when performing a sprint or sudden burst of running without proper stretching, and imbalances between your hamstrings and quadriceps in strength and power over a given range of motion.
Stretching balanced with strengthening
Generally, stretching is considered useful, but it has its shortcomings – particularly static stretching. Although static stretching can isolate and help elongate targeted muscle groups, it won’t increase muscle strength because the muscle fibers get longer but not necessarily stronger. Therefore, muscular stretching, coupled with strengthening, ensures that lengthened muscles become strong in their extended range.
Stretching all major muscle groups is an important part of a daily exercise routine as it keeps you flexible, helps you keep doing what you want and need to do, and reduces your risk of injury.
What is the best and safest way to stretch?
Stretching incorrectly can do more harm than good. Use these “do and don’t” tips to keep stretching safe:
- Don’t stretch “cold” muscles in order to prevent injury. Prior to stretching, warm up with walking, jogging or cycling at a low intensity for five to ten minutes
- Don’t bounce when you stretch. Rather, aim for smooth, fluid and controlled movements.
- Don’t stretch to the point of pain
- Stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm and activated
- Stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use
- Be consistent with your stretching. You can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week.
- Make sure you perform any stretching routine in conjunction with strengthening exercises