Stretching is probably one of the most overlooked parts of an exercise routine. But, no matter what your goals are, stretching is important and should be included in your routine.
Many things can cause muscles to shorten or become tight including sitting for long periods of time, an inactive lifestyle, exercise and weight lifting, overuse, and injury. Stretching lengthens the muscle and helps restore it to it’s normal length. There are many reasons for including flexibility exercises into your regular exercise routine: improved flexibility, better range of motion improved posture and alignment of joints, improved relaxation and less risk of injury are a few.
What could result from not stretching regularly? There could be short-term muscle pain and decreased range of motion. There are also some long-term negative effects. Not stretching could result in muscle imbalances that over time can become quite painful. Muscle imbalances occur when certain muscles become inhibited and weak while others become strong and tight. This combination creates changes in how your body moves which could alter joint function. Muscle imbalances can be caused by improper training (not developing muscles equally) and by not stretching.
Any time joint’s movement is impaired, your muscles respond by tightening or shortening. Since muscles are attached to bones, this shortening may put bones and joints in abnormal positions and alter movement patterns. This situation of muscular imbalance, limited range of motion and joint deviations perpetuates itself resulting in further decreased mobility, tighter muscles and a whole lot of pain.
In addition to realizing the benefits of regular stretching, you should also know about the different kinds of stretching. The most common types of stretching include: corrective stretching and relaxation stretching.
Corrective stretching is done to restore muscle balance and joint mobility and to lengthen chronically tight muscles. It should be done after a general warm-up (5-10 minutes of moderate cardio) but before your resistance training workout.
Relaxation stretching is designed to relax and lengthen the muscle. Since exercise shortens your muscles, relaxation stretching after every workout can return muscles to their normal lengths and prevent problems in the future and prevent chronically tight muscles. It is typically done after a workout but can also be done anytime to release stress or after being in the same position for long periods of time (at a desk or in a car).
If you’re going to stretch and you haven’t worked out, it’s recommended that you do a 5-10 minute general warm-up first. Although you can stretch as often as you like, it’s very easy to overstretch (stretch too far). To help prevent injury while stretching, remember, stretching should feel good; a light pull that decreases the longer the stretch is held. If you have to grimace and grunt while stretching, you’re probably over doing it. You should hold a stretch for 15-60 seconds and move in a slow controlled manner. Bouncing can increase the risk of injury to your muscles and tendons. Its also important to never stretch a “cold” muscle. A 5-10 minute warm-up will increase blood flow and body temperature to make your muscles more pliable.
What should you stretch? Everything! Especially chronically tight muscles or the muscles that you’ve just exercised. There are certain muscles that are prone to tightness, including: gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles), hamstrings, rectus femoris (one of the quadriceps) and the psoas major and tensor facia latae (hip flexors).
There are many different ways to stretch your muscles but they are difficult to explain correctly with words. If you’re not sure of what to do, it’s strongly recommended that you take a class or learn proper technique from a qualified personal fitness trainer. Stretching exercises should be part of everyone’s workout routine and can make big improvements in your exercise results and your overall health and fitness.