In the final part of this six-part series on the benefits of exercise, I’ll close with a discussion of what I close all my classes with: stretching.
While it may not be “exercise”, per se, stretching is arguably one of the most important parts of your workout, maybe even ranking second to an effective warmup. That’s because there are some amazing benefits to stretching. But before we dig into those, let’s quickly address a couple of different types of stretching and when and how each should be done.
Dynamic vs. Static Stretching
There are various types of stretching, but the two that are arguably the simplest, safest, and most widely used—and maybe even the most important and effective—are dynamic and static stretching. (See Kravitz’s articles below for discussions of other types of stretching.)
Dynamic stretching involves moving (i.e., dynamic) your joints through full-range-of-motion movements (not too fast), maybe even holding each position for up to a few seconds. Examples of dynamic stretches could include arm circles, shifting side to side in a lateral lunge, or coming in and out of a low squat. Because dynamic stretching involves movement, it’s most effective before a workout, even as part of a warmup. It prepares the body for activity by taking the important joints through their full range of motion (and by getting blood flowing and raising the core temperature, as a good warmup should do). This range-of-motion prep can help prevent injury during the workout, since the body is effectively prepared for what you will be doing during the workout.
As important as dynamic stretching can be in preparing for a workout, the rest of this article will focus on static stretching, as that is the kind of stretching that better leads to improvements in flexibility, recovery, etc.
Static stretching is what you probably think of when you think of stretching. It involves holding (i.e., static) a position. It can take a good 20 seconds or so of holding before your muscles start to relax into the stretch, and that relaxation is what is needed to improve flexibility. So as you hold your static stretches, aim for 20 to 30 seconds. But if your muscles need extra attention or you have big flexibility goals (e.g., doing the splits), you can hold for even a minute or few.
Whereas dynamic stretching is good before a workout, static stretching is best after a workout and, in fact, should not be done before a workout. Why? You risk injury (e.g., muscle tears) if you try to do static stretching when your muscles are cold. So at the very least, do a few minutes of activity to warm up your muscles. More than that, static stretching puts the muscles in a relaxed state, which means that they may not be able to exert as much strength or power. So if you want to get the most out of your workout, save the stretching for after. Plus, stretching can help muscles recover (more on that below), so it’s wise to stretch the muscles and joints you used during the workout after it’s done.
Now that we’ve described when and how to do static stretching, let’s examine the many benefits it offers our bodies—and minds.
Benefits of (Static) Stretching
When done in the right way and at the right time, stretching can be a great way to not just end your workout, but also to prepare your body for your next workout. This is because stretching can help our bodies recover effectively, be less prone to injury, and perform better, making stretching a vital part of your workout routine.
Whether due to injury (scar tissue is not very flexible), underuse, and old age, range of motion can become limited over time. Stretching can prevent and/or counteract this. Stretching involves lengthening muscles, which makes them and the surrounding connective tissue more elastic. This leads to improvements in both static flexibility (i.e., maximal position a joint can sustain, whether assisted or not) and active range of motion (i.e., maximal unassisted movement of a joint). Both of these are crucial for healthy aging, since we tend to lose mobility as we get older. They’re also crucial for lowering the likelihood of injuries (more on this below).
Better flexibility can also lead to improved posture. As muscles around shoulders or hips become tight, they could pull on your posture in such a way that you slouch or that you arch your lower back too much (or not enough). Effective stretching can release this strain, allowing a posture that’s healtheir, more natural, and more comfortable.
Reduced Risk of Injury
As alluded to above and discussed in last week’s article, flexibility is one of the best ways to reduce the risk and/or severity of injuries. When joints have more mobility, it’s less likely that you’ll inadvertently push them beyond their range of motion capacity during a workout. Imagine trying to bend a sheet of glass vs. trying to bend a sheet of plastic: the plastic will bend and spring back to its original position; the glass will hardly move at all, until it finally breaks under the strain. More elastic muscles and connective tissue are like the plastic: more able to stretch without tearing.
The research on this matter has been somewhat mixed, but there is evidence that stretching can enhance your body’s recovery from your workout. This iis because stretching increases blood flow to the muscles being stretched. This extra blood can help to jump-start and shorten the recovery process, and it can reduce the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that often results from a hard workout. I have very much noticed this to be true in my own experience: I’m definitely less sore when I take more time to stretch.
As mentioned above, static stretching before a workout can hinder your performance on that workout, particular if it will involve high-intensity movements (e.g., sprinting, jumping) or heavy loads. However, when stretching is included as part of your regular workout activities (but not done before your workout), it can actually improve performance on things like how high you can jump, how much force your muscles can exert, and how fast you can run.
But how? Stretching can cause at least small amounts of muscle growth (this is called stretch-induced hypertrophy), which could be enough to account for these performance effects. It could also be due to the fact that the muscles are more elastic and responsive or that they’re more recovered and are better able to work. Whatever the exact reason, it is clear that a regular stretching routine makes your muscles work better.
There are actually several ways that stretching can reduce pain. First of all, it can prevent injuries, or at least reduce their severity. This can help avoid the pain altogether.
Secondly, stretching can relieve lower back pain, probably owing to less strain from tight muscles and bad posture.
Thirdly, stretching could help decrease tension headaches—at least those that are caused by tight, tense muscles in and round the neck and shoulders.
Lastly, stretching can be an excellent way to relieve chronic muscle soreness from overuse. I can personally attest to this one. I have had several instances of muscle/joint pain (mostly knees and hips) that lasted for weeks and that I can trace back to overuse of those muscles. But, after a day or few of targeted, intentional stretching, the pain went away. Foam rolling and other similar techniques can also help reduce this kind of soreness. These techniques can be especially effective for areas that are hard to hit through stretching.
Stress, like tension, can be carried in muscles; so stretching tight muscles can be a great way to relieve stress. Plus, holding stretches can be a great time to practice some form of mindfulness, meditation, or positive thinking, and those are great stress management techniques. In this latter sense, it’s maybe not the stretching itself that reduced stress, but it can be a great time to do other things that reduce stress.
Hopefully by now you’ve seen the value of stretching—how, when incorporated into your workout routines (I’d strongly recommend at the end), it can help your body move better, be stronger, have less pain, and be less prone to injury, even later into life.
But, be careful: As mentioned earlier, don’t do static stretching without being warmed up; you could risk straining or tearing something. Also, don’t overdo it. It’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable while stretching, but it shouldn’t hurt. Also beware of stretching too far and/or too often, especially without also strengthening the muscles of that joint. If a joint is too stretchy without enough muscle and connective tissue to hold it in place, you risk making it unstable, which can lead to injury. So make sure that you strengthen the joints and muscles that you stretch. But if you stretch at the end of your workout, focusing on the muscles you worked, then you should be good to go. More than that, you might even be better than ever, recovered and ready to go for you next workout.
“Flexibility Training”, Len Kravitz and Vivian H. Heyward (University of New Mexico)
“Stretching: A Research Retrospective”, Len Kravitz (University of New Mexico)
“Stretching: Focus on Flexibility” (Mayo Clinic)
“Stretching: 9 Benefits, Plus Safety and How to Start”, Sara Lindberg (reviewed by Daniel Bubnis) (Healthine)