What is your approach to stretching? Is it an afterthought? Not a thought at all? Part of your usual routine?
No matter what stretching you are doing, did you ever ask yourself why you are doing it or what specifically you are hoping to get out of it? Or, like a lot of folks, do you throw in a few stretches here and there because you think you should?
Ever wonder if it’s really that important anyway?
Well, here’s a bit of the good, the bad, and the ugly about stretching that may clear up some things for you.
Stretching is not a cure-all for tightness. Bummer, but that’s the truth. If your tightness or stiffness is from previous damage, injury, or degeneration, there may some permanent changes that cannot be addressed by stretching.
Sometimes, there is some tissue damage that can only be loosened up with the help of a professional. Deep tissue work, manipulation or mobilization can go a long way towards getting you back on track if there has been injury.
What if you have a “knot” or “trigger point” in a muscle? If you figure that stretching would help this, stop for a minute and think of it this way: Picture a rubber band with a knot in it. If you stretch the rubber band, what happens to the knot? It actually gets tighter. Again, bummer. With specific tight places like this, you may need to seek out someone who can help release that. Alternatively, using a foam roller, rolling stick, or even a tennis ball on yourself can help, once you learn the technique.
Now here comes the good part. Stretching is awesome for helping to correct muscle tightness that comes from bad habits, casual form, or poor posture. This is the type of stiffness that has just become part of how you routinely move.
Here’s what can happen for you with a regular, focused, stretching program:
- Your movements become more adaptable. In other words, you will have more of your muscle’s length to use for whatever you are doing. For example, many studies have shown that good hip mobility is associated with a lower risk of falling.
- You can actually get stronger. This was highlighted in a recent study that put a group of non-exercisers on a 10-week stretching program. At the end of the day, stats showed that they became, on average, 18% more flexible. In addition, they also became 15%-32% stronger, depending on the activity. Why would this be? Longer, more flexible muscles have more tissue available to contract. That makes for greater strength.
- When your muscles aren’t tight, they are more coordinated and efficient. Tight muscles are partially shut down in terms of what they can do for you.
- Flexible muscles mean that your body can get into the position of good posture and alignment. When that is the norm, you are on your way to fewer aches and pains, and more energy because you aren’t in compensation mode.
Without going into specifics, there are some well-researched guidelines for getting the most out of a stretching program.
- Warm up first. Stretching a cold muscle will not help you get more flexible.
- Hold a stretch for 15-30 seconds. For best results, do the stretch 2-4 times. More times than that will not be of additional benefit. Stretching 2-3 days a week is recommended, but stretching every day will help even more.
- Stretching is supposed to be relaxing! Don’t go too far into the pain zone. Take stock of what your body is doing when you stretch. Are you tensing or guarding? If so, back off, get into a mellower mode, and breathe slowly as you stretch. Take 8-10 long slow breaths with each stretch instead of counting seconds. See if you can feel your muscle letting go a bit as you get further into the stretch. The relaxation you get may keep you coming back for more.
One last thing, if the thought of doing all that stretching seems like too much, find a few stretches that you feel are giving you the biggest bang for your buck. Typically this is your hamstrings (back of your thigh), hip flexors (front of your hips), calves, and front of your chest. That’s only four. Stretching these areas ONE TIME three times a week can still give you some benefit that you will notice after just a few weeks.
How have you been stretching? I would love to hear from you. I will respond to all comments!
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