A person stretching in the middle of their run.

How important is stretching…or is it?

Most of us are good at certain kinds of stretching. For example, we all have that one sweater that we absolutely love, but have worn and stretched out so much that it’s three sizes bigger than it’s original size. Maybe you’ve stretched a budget to the end of a particularly indulgent month, and let’s face it – we’ve all stretched the truth to our boss when ‘traffic’ makes us late to work.

But with all this stretching experience, many of us still aren’t really sure if, when, and how we should be stretching the most important thing in our lives: our bodies.

Why is stretching important?

There’s some controversy surrounding stretching, but for the most part, everyone agrees that we should stretch occasionally. Stretching helps to loosen our muscles and increase our body’s range of motion. According to experts at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, stretching after exercise can improve flexibility, prevent certain injuries, and increase blood flow to the muscles.

Don’t stiff the warm-up

There’s a misconception that we need to stretch before we exercise, but the truth is that many studies, particularly one published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, strongly discourage using stretching as a warm-up before exercise. In fact, this isn’t good for the body. To stretch properly, you need to know what stretches to do, and at what part of your workout.

  • Before exercising or stretching, do a low-intensity active warm-up for about 5-10 minutes. Then use some dynamic stretches, which require you to move your muscles through their full range of motion. Think lunges, leg swings, or torso twists.
  • Once you’re done exercising and your pulse has returned to normal, use static stretching to cool down. Static stretches involve moving your muscle to the end of its range of motion and holding it there for 20-45 seconds. Think quad stretches where you hold your foot behind your back, or shoulder stretches where you hold your arm gently against your body.

Know your limber limits

This one is so essential to good stretching. It’s okay to push yourself during your workout, but your stretches shouldn’t make you feel pain; you should only feel tension. Much of our flexibility, according to researchers, is determined by our genes. The goal of stretching isn’t to become a world-class contortionist, or even to do a split. You just want your body to be able to go through a range of motion that lets you exercise and move without getting injuries.

Rules for making like a wet noodle

Different stretches require different things, and dynamic stretching pre-exercise might not look the same for you as static stretching after you work out. Stretching is based on individual needs more than universal guidelines. There are a lot of resources online that describe the best stretches for different workouts, lifestyles, and physical needs (for example, if your calves are always really tight). But a few rules do apply to all kinds of stretches.
  • You want to focus on major muscle groups, like your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders
  • Never bounce a body part when stretching because this can cause injury
  • Stretch around 2-3 times a week, and only do static stretching after exercise
There’s a lot of contradictory evidence regarding stretching, especially as it relates to exercise. Don’t worry too much about getting everything ‘just right’, and don’t worry about finding your inner Gumby, either. Just make sure to follow the basic guidelines about when and how to stretch, and you’ll be injury-free in the long run.

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