Stretching is a good way for athletes to warm their muscles up and work on flexibility and range of motion.
But it’s also good for the everyday man (adults included).
Unfortunately, although a lot of people do “stretch” every day, like when they wake up in the morning, they’re not doing it in a way that gives them any clear clinical benefit. Worse, if one looks online, they’re likely to find a dozen different sources contradicting one another on the proper way one should stretch.
Old-fashioned stretching is called static stretching.
Think the old-fashioned sitting on the ground and trying to touch your toes stretches from gym class. It allows one to control the tension and hold the muscle contracted.
Active isolated stretching is another form of stretching using another object to pull the muscle. An example is stretching the scapula muscle.
Tuck the hand behind the neck so the forearm and bicep are pressed together, then, with the other hand, pull the elbow toward the center of the body until tension is felt.
That’s an example of active isolated stretching.
Active isolated stretching is dangerous as it can be overdone if the person doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Stretches also shouldn’t be uncomfortable. There should be tension, but not pain. One should be able to breathe easily while stretching.
According to Harvard Health, each stretch should be held for at least 30 seconds, but, according to the Mayo Clinic, one can stretch in whatever interval they feel most comfortable with as long as they reach a cumulative 60 seconds per muscle. That means three sets of 20 seconds could be just as good as two 30 second sets.
Bouncing is a bad habit that many hold onto from stretching exercises when they were younger, and many do it without even being aware they are but bouncing is bad for numerous reasons because it causes a sharp increase in the risk of injury due to the possibility of accidentally overstretching.
But what – exactly – should one stretch?
There’s so many muscles, that it’s hard to sit down and go through stretching all of them. According to Harvard Health, the most-crucial areas are the lower extremities, including calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, and the pelvis. If one sits at a desk all day, tight hamstrings and hip flexors can play a large role in recurring back pain by pulling the pelvis out of alignment and affecting the natural curve of the spine.
Craig Owens, the strength and conditioning coach for Anderson County High School, recommends forward and backward lunges as great stretches for the everyday person.
He also stressed the difference between static stretching and dynamic stretching.
“There’s a difference between flexibility and mobility,” he said. “Flexibility is how much the muscle can stretch passively – but mobility is everything working together to propel the body through a range of motion.
“When you’re playing a sport, you really want to focus on mobility, which is why you see the dynamic stretches like high-knees and lunges and things like that because you want all the parts of the muscle working together to give a full range of motion.”
If stretching is something one considers adding to their workout, be warned, that guy with the whistle back in high school was wrong.
It’s better to stretch the muscles after a small warm-up (slight walk or some other gentle activity) because the muscles will already have blood flowing to them.
Stretching a “cold” muscle is dangerous because the muscle is more injury prone.
“A cold muscle is much more likely to tear,” said Owens. “And static stretching has been shown to reduce the muscle’s ability to produce force. That’s why it should come at the end of a workout or during a time where that’s not your main goal. Same with bouncing during a stretch. If you’re bouncing during a stretch, it greatly increases the likelihood of you overstretching that muscle or tearing it.”
No matter what stretches are done or how, the most important part is to continue to do them. Any physical therapist or someone who’s tried to lose weight will attest that the body is slow to adapt to changes.
Stretching once and expecting results is as useful as running a single mile and expecting to lose 30 pounds.
It takes a consistent effort to produce results, but experts say that stretching three or four times a week should begin to produce results in weeks or months.
Finally, even more important than stretching is to stay hydrated. Owens compares dry muscles to beef jerky.
“I tell the kids to think of it like a piece of beef jerky. That piece of meat with all of the moisture pulled out? Easy to rip, easy to tear.
“You take that same piece of meat when it’s fully hydrated, though, and it’s an entirely different story. The more hydrated you are, the less likely you are to tear a muscle in most cases.”
So to recap: Don’t bounce; static stretching is better for after activity has finished; forward and backward lunges are good everyday stretches for the lower body, like Harvard Health recommends; stretching needs to be done consistently to see results; and – most important of all – stay hydrated.