Stretching and flexibility are foundations of a workout routine. While the value of stretching is in dispute, flexibility is still viewed as beneficial.
Stretching and flexibility for maximum range
One really important factor in regaining my health and fitness relate to my stretching and flexibility routine. I’ve stretched vigorously for years and always tried to stay limber. But along with a few years of not paying attention to my flexibility, age is having an impact on my muscles and tendons, limiting my range of motion.
Now that I’m working on getting back into shape, working out the kinks in my joints takes more than a casual stretch. If I want to increase my strength, flexibility, and avoid injury, I need to spend time stretching out my limbs.
But what kind of stretching should I do, and for what benefit? The case against stretching has been growing with some saying it is vital to the foundations of health and exercise, and others saying it provides no discernible improvement.
Stretching for flexibility takes time, and is not really a lot of fun. It is repetitive and can leave your muscles sorer than a really tough workout! And just like building muscle, the gains of stretching are easily lost without a consistent regimen.
But a regular flexibility routine is important for my overall fitness. I am slowly easing my way into earning the advantage of extending my range.
Health benefits of stretching and flexibility
While it should be a given that stretching is beneficial, the fact is several studies offer mixed results. It might be the case that stretching’s long-held assumptions are being challenged in the lab. Lessons that everyone took for granted about using stretching to warm up, or that lots of stretching will prevent muscle soreness after workouts, are proving in some research to not be true. Stretching out and holding a muscle in a lengthening stretch immediately before a sprint may actually impede performance. And there’s little evidence that regular stretching actually increases the length of muscle fibers or tendons.
Some studies state that while there are benefits to stretching, it is a mystery as to how those benefits are achieved. If tests indicate that muscle fibers and tendons are not getting longer, then how is someone able to gradually increase their range of motion?
There is not even a consensus on what kind of stretching is actually effective.
What most studies do seem to agree on, however, is that stretching improves flexibility. This can lead to a greater range of motion in joints and make injuries from exercise less likely(although this is thoroughly in dispute, too)
Improved flexibility increases the flow of blood to muscles, leading to increased performance in activities such as running or jumping. Having a greater range of motion enables muscles to work more effectively. And a greater range of motion means less risk of torn muscles or tendons.
While this is the case in general for athletes, there is still no universal agreement from science on what kind of stretching is of is best for average people.
Keeping stretching simple
So, what can I take away from having decades of adherence to the temple of stretching turned on its head, suggesting that all my efforts have been, at best, useless?
Stretching improves flexibility. Flexibility has benefits. Even if that benefit is my body’s increased tolerance to discomfort, which leads me to being able to touch my toes.
Until, and if, the official ruling comes out, I think I can still include the pursuit of flexibility in my routine. I just need to understand what my goals are, what stretching can do – and what it can’t do.
- Don’t stretch as a warmup. This is the biggest myth about stretching. I should warm up with dynamic movement including low-intensity walking.
- Keep it balanced. Make sure I am stretching for even flexibility on my body. My right side is dominant but I should make sure I pay attention to the symmetry of my body.
- Concentrate on big muscle groups. Concentrate my stretches on my calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Stretch the muscles and joints that I routinely use.
- Don’t bounce. Avoid unnecessary injury by stretching slowly and smoothly. Don’t bounce in order to get a deeper stretch.
- Don’t hold the stretch longer than 1 minute. There is no evidence that stretches held for longer than that have any greater benefit.
- Don’t hurt myself. I should feel tension and resistance, but pain is a sign I’ve pushed too far.
- Stretch regularly and consistently. Like muscle development, the improvements are perishable if not kept up with. While stretching may not be necessary every day, it should be done on a schedule.
- Add movement to stretching. Considered better than static stretching, dynamic stretching uses movement to improve range of motion. In some cases, it can be sports-specific, but a flowing routine that improves flexibility can be more useful than hours spent on the floor pushing my nose to my knees.
The stretches I am (trying) to do every day to improve my strength and flexibility
When I rebooted my exercise program two weeks ago I jumped eagerly into stretching. My muscles were like, “Whoa! What’s this all about?” and promptly reminded me that it had been months since I’d tried to touch my toes or stretch my back. My legs and back were as sore as if I had run 10 miles and then performed a bodybuilder’s workout routine. I took a couple of days to rest and let my newly wrung-out limbs recover.
This past week I have stretched out daily. I have been more gentle with my bends, slowly easing into the long stretches that increase my range of motion. I have a rotating routine now of stretches that include some stretches I do every day and others that I only do every other day, mixing dynamic movement with user-specific static stretches.
- Standing hamstring stretch: I do this one first thing after getting out of bed. I stand up with my feet close together, exhale, and bend forward at the hips. I try to let my arms and head dangle down and touch my toes. Contracting the muscles in my hips push my butt towards the ceiling for about a count of five. Then I stand up, letting my back roll up and lifting my neck last. Right now I’m doing this once, but I’d like to increase to three or five repetitions.
- Triceps stretch: Once I finish my hamstring stretch I raise my right arm over my head and bend my elbow, letting my hand touch the middle of my back between my shoulders. I use my left hand to hold onto my right elbow and gently pull my right arm back. I do this for a count of five, then release and repeat the move with my left arm. This gets a good stretch on my arms, shoulders, neck, and back. I do this once for each arm.
- Lunge stretch: This is one of two stretches I do for my lower body. Standing with my feet just shoulder-width apart, I step forward with my left foot. Keeping my weight centered over my left knee, I push my hips towards the floor, stretching out my hip flexors, thigh and butt muscles. I stand back up and repeat with my left leg. I do three repetitions for each leg.
- Quad stretch: This is the second exercise I do for my lower body. Standing next to the wall for support, I bend my right knee and grab my foot with my hand. I gently pull my food towards my butt. I hold for a count of 10, then let go of my foot and repeat the move with my left leg. This stretches my quads, hips, and shoulders.
Every other day:
- Sun Salutations: I do this routine every other day in the morning when I have about 5 – 10 minutes. I currently perform two repetitions. It has several dynamic stretches that flow together and make it easy to transition. I want to eventually do these every day, and perform as many at 10 reps.
- Pigeon Pose: Another yoga-inspired stretch that I use for my hips. It does present a risk of over-stretching my knees, so I go slow and don’t bounce. I sit on the floor with my right leg extended straight behind me and my left leg bent inward in front of me. Whatever move I make stretches some part of my hip flexors. If I sit up straight and tall it stretches me more on the right side, and if I bend forward at the waist it works my left side. From here I can perform a range of dynamic movement. I switch the pose and extended my left leg behind me and go through the moves again slowly and carefully. I will do this in the evening while the tv is on and I can take as much a full minute to move through the pose.
- Dynamic squats: I follow up my pigeon poses with a minute or so of dynamic squats (that’s what I call them). I stand and squat repeatedly for a minute or two, trying to touch my butt to the floor while keeping my feet flat (and not falling over). I stand up and bend over as I would in a hamstring stretch, then stand up and squat again. My goal is to duplicate some of the movements I use at work where my current level of flexibility is lacking.
- Butterfly stretches: After my dynamic squats I sit and draw the heels of my feet towards my hips until my knees are pointing out. Bending forward and then bending towards each knee, I stretch out my glutes, hips, lower back, and hamstrings and shoulders. I’ll do a series of stretches for a couple of minutes.
Every day I’m extending my flexibility and range a little bit further. Moving gently and understand what the stretches are not providing for me lets me push new barriers as I improve.