Sometimes it’s hard enough to squeeze in a regular workout (cardio and/or strength training)—forget about finding time for stretching, right? Unfortunately, many people feel this way. Or perhaps you skip stretching because you’ve heard it’s harmful or maybe you think it’s only for weak people, those who can’t tough it out or need a break between sets or exercises.
If any of these sound familiar, then you’re really missing out. Stretching can help increase flexibility, range of motion and circulation. Another bonus: It can help relieve stress (and if there’s one thing that’s in ample supply these days, it’s stress!). It may even help reduce the risk for injury. Stretching is so important that Bob Greene has included it as a component of functional fitness—that is, the ability to get through your everyday activities without any injury or pain.
Your body is under constant stress and strain all day long, whether sitting behind a desk and typing, lifting boxes or playing with the kids. This stress can lead to tight muscles, which in turn, could make you more prone to injury. Stretching helps maintain loose muscles and more fluid joints, which not only reduces your risk for injury, but also makes getting through the day easier.
Still not convinced? Consider that you get all these benefits for a minimal time investment—only about five minutes per session. So free up five minutes and squeeze in some stretching next time you hit the gym. When you do, keep these smart strategies in mind:
• Focus on the major muscle groups, including the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, shoulders, back, abs and and neck. Think about what you do during the day, and make sure to include some stretches to help you get through your workday pain-free. For example, if you sit at a desk all day, make sure you stretch your back; this will help you maintain posture and keep you flexible for quick movements (reaching to grab the phone, hopping out of your chair). If you’re on your feet all day, make sure to stretch your calves and hamstrings. Check out some of our previous blog posts for some good stretching exercises.
• Stretch a warm muscle. Stretching is not the way to start a workout. Instead, warm up by walking around and lightly pumping your arms, performing walking lunges, or even jumping on an aerobic machine for five minutes at a very low pace. Stretching a muscle that’s cold can put you at risk for injury. Think of what happens when you try to stretch a cold rubber band—it either snaps or fails to return to its normal shape. On the other hand, when you stretch a warm muscle, two things happen: One, there are increased nerve impulses, which work to prevent you from overstretching. And two, there’s more blood flowing to the area, which helps repair tiny tears in the muscle as you stretch. So stretch after you warm up but before you work out, and then again when you’re through. Though you can stretch for as long as you’d like, you really only need about five minutes total (before and after your workout).
• Avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. Attempting to keep up with a workout partner or classmate by stretching farther than you’re able can cause injury. Instead, get into the correct stretch position and when you feel a gentle pull, hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch to the other side and repeat four to five times.
• Don’t bounce. Bouncing while stretching can also result in injury—if you stretch too far, small tears can occur in the muscle, leading to the formation of scar tissue when they heal. The problem with scar tissue is that it’s not very flexible, so in essence, you end up creating a tighter muscle that doesn’t stretch as easily.
• Stretch until you feel tension—not pain. If you feel any pain when stretching (for instance, you have to hold your breath or feel a sharp pain that persists when you let go of the stretch), then the stretch is too deep. Back off and find a more comfortable spot.
• Set a stretching schedule. Stretch as many times a week as you feel is appropriate. It’s a good idea to plan some time for stretching when you exercise, but it’s also OK to stretch on your off days—just remember the “warm muscle” rule (above). Avoid stretching when you have an injury until you’ve been given the OK to stretch again.