It is common knowledge that stretching is important for maintaining and improving flexibility and proper flexibility helps keep muscles functioning and feeling well. Unfortunately, while most people know flexibility is important, few people take the time to adequately stretch their muscles.
As a result, I wrote this article to explain why stretching is so important and how it will improve your quality of life. There are also some basic stretching recommendations to get you started. My hope is this information will encourage you to make stretching part of your everyday routine.
Maintaining sufficient flexibility is important for preventing muscle stiffness, tightness, pain, and injuries. When muscles are not stretched on a regular basis, they will become tighter, shorter, and ultimately decrease in range of motion. When muscles are kept in a shortened position for an extended period of time, they require stretching to return to their original length.
For example, it is common for people sit for many hours every day and the hip flexors are kept in a shortened position during this time. If these muscles are not stretched on occasion, they will stay in a partially shortened position. If this happens over a long period of time, you will actually lose parts of your muscle, called sarcomeres, which are responsible for the contraction of the muscle. When this occurs, the muscle will maintain a shortened position and intensive stretching will be required to regain the lost sarcomeres and return the muscle to it’s original resting length.
This may not sound too bad, but when a muscle is kept in a shortened position, it has drastic effects on the body. The most common symptoms are increased soreness, stiffness, and pain. Short muscles are not as effective as optimal length muscles and they often develop knots and become overworked. When a muscle is chronically tight or overworked, you can experience pain any time the muscle contracts. Eventually, this may become so bad that the muscles stays contracted and you will feel almost constant pain.
To make matters worse, your body will try to compensate for the overworked muscle activating other muscles to do the work that the fatigued muscle is unable to perform. This leads to additional overuse of the muscles trying to help out. Going back to the sitting example, when hip flexors become too tight, they will cause the low back muscles to become overworked. Put simply, sitting for many hours without stretching is one of the main causes of lower back pain.
This is just one common example of how tight muscles cause everyday pain, but there are many others. The good news is that many instances of muscle and joint pain can be improved, completely relieved, or avoided altogether by a good stretching routine. Unfortunately most people do not realize the importance of stretching until they already develop significant muscle problems and then it becomes much more difficult to correct the problem.
There are many different types of stretching (dynamic, ballistic, PNF, etc.), but this article will only discuss static stretching. Static stretching is the most commonly used form of stretching and is considered very safe and effective for increasing flexibility. You are probably familiar with this type of stretching, which involves holding a particular stretch for a certain amount of time with minimal movement and no bouncing.
When performing static stretches, you should feel a moderate stretch, but you should never push the stretch to the point of pain. Overstretching a muscle can result in injury instead of improvement. Stretches are generally held between 15 and 30 seconds and performed 1 to 3 times. Usually the second and third times stretching a muscle will result in a larger stretch (without additional discomfort) than the first stretch.
Of course tighter muscles that need to be lengthened need to be stretched more than healthy muscles that just need to retain their normal length. Healthy muscles probably only need to be stretched once per day, while tight muscles should be stretched at least 2 or 3 times per day.
If you exercise, the most important time to perform static stretching is after your workout. Exercising is incredibly good for you, but it can cause muscles to become very tight and if they are not stretched they will remain in a shortened position. This will likely cause unnecessary stiffness, soreness, delays in recovery, decreased flexibility, or even muscle imbalances.
Stretching after exercise is also beneficial, because your muscles will still be warmed up. This allows the muscle to be more pliable and you will be able to stretch further without discomfort. It is a good idea to do something to warm up your muscles before any stretching and you should avoid stretching a cold (not warmed up) muscle whenever possible. You do not have to do activity before stretching; even a hot bath or shower can significantly improve the quality of your stretches and decrease the chances of overstretching or injury.
I am not going to recommend specific stretches, because there are too many different options and everyone responds differently to various stretches. There are however some general rules to follow. Most importantly, if a stretch does not feel comfortable or you are not feeling a decent stretch, find a different stretch. It is also a good idea to make minor changes in your body position at the beginning of the stretch to find the position that causes the best stretch. This is the position you should maintain during the duration of the stretch.
You are probably familiar with the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and this statement is certainly true when it comes to stretching. Incorporating stretching into your daily routine will help improve your current muscle and joint problems, as well as stop future problems before they start. Start today and learn first hand how much stretching can improve your quality of life.