How many times have you heard “don’t forget to stretch!” when you exercise? Hopefully you’ve heard the advice often enough you at least think about incorporating flexibility exercises within your movement routine.
But why do we need to stretch? What’s important about flexibility?
What is Flexibility and Why Is It Important?
Flexibility describes the ability of musculoskeletal joints to move through normal and full range of motions. When you raise your arms up, being able to reach both hands up and clap above your head takes your shoulder through one direction of its range of motion.
Why should we care about flexibility? While new research is showing stretching might not prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness (soreness hours or days after exercises) as previously thought, maintaining good flexibility helps reduce risk of injury, improve posture, increase range of motion, and improve stress management.
Experimenting with Flexibility
One of the most important rules to remember about stretching: always warm up before stretching. But, why?
Let’s try an experiment. Grab a rubber band. Stretch it out between your fingers, noticing its easy elasticity and wide range.
Now lay the rubber band flat on a shelf in the freezer for a few hours (12-24 hours is best). Retrieve your now frozen rubber band and immediately try stretching it. Does it stretch as far? What happens if you stretch it too far now that it’s frozen?
It breaks! This analogy demonstrates why we want to move around some before stretching. Our muscles are composed of many small fibers forming bundles, somewhat similar to many strings forming a rope. When we stretch cold muscles, those fibers literally tear, causing soreness and possibly injury. Warm muscles (warmed by increased blood flow and body temperature as you increase movement) stretch much easier and safer, like a warm rubber band stretches farther.
Incorporating Flexibility Training – Static Versus Dynamic Stretching
Now we know what flexibility is and why we should actively train flexibility, how do we incorporate it? First, there are two main types of stretches:
Static stretching – holding a stretch in an extended position, typically at the end of the joint’s range of motion, without moving for several seconds or longer. Example: holding a typical seated hamstring stretch for 20 seconds without moving.
Dynamic Stretching – stretching through the typical range of motion about joint by moving with little resistance against the muscles. Example: swinging your arms slowly and lightly before shooting a basketball.
Some sources recommend light dynamic stretching before exercise (like walking around and performing simple movements like arm circles at a controlled speed) and incorporating a few static stretches after exercise. Dynamic stretches can be easily added to a warm-up by lengthening your stride or movement. A caution: If you are very new to stretching, it is generally safer to begin with static stretching. Have a doctor or fitness professional teach you correct form with dynamic stretches and always keep the motion slow and controlled.
A simple way to put together a stretching routine is to make a list with two columns, one for dynamic stretches and one for static stretches. Aim for coming up with one stretch of each type for each of the major muscle groups you use that day, including hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps, biceps, shoulders (deltoids), pectorals, abdominals, calves, and back.
How often should you stretch? Best case scenario: after every workout. Otherwise, at least twice a week for 5-10 minutes helps.
How many stretches? Stretch each of the major muscle groups you used in that activity (typically 4-8 stretches).
How long should you hold each static stretch? 10-60 seconds is generally accepted as beneficial. Try 10-20 controlled repetitions for dynamic stretches.
If you can only stretch once in a work out, when should you stretch? Between before or after a workout, always choose after if you only have one opportunity. (See this article for some reasoning why.)
Need some examples of appropriate stretches? Check out this page at ACEFitness.org and look at any of the exercises that include the word “stretch” in the title.
What stretches can you and your family incorporate after you exercise?
References and Resources for More Stretching And Flexibility Information
Fit & Well by Fahey, Insel, and Roth. McGraw-Hill: 2009. 9th edition.
“Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?” – article from ACE Fitness
“Flexible Benefits” – tips from ACE Fitness
“Debunking Fitness Myths: Stretching” – fascinating article from ACE Fitness
“Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?” – from ACE Fitness
Dynamic Stretching Exercises For Flexibility And Warming Up – article from ManvsWeight.com
Guest post by Caroline Flory. Caroline is a believer, wife, homeschooling momma, former public school teacher, and current certified personal trainer. Check out her family fitness posts at The Homeschool Village and connect with her at her personal blog, Under God’s Mighty Hand, as well as on Twitter and Pinterest.
For more human anatomy and physiology resources………….