Have you ever tried to blow up a balloon without stretching it first? You can blow it up, but it never puffs up quite the way it could. Trust me, I'm not saying humans are balloons—but we need to stretch, too!
Studies suggest that stretching regularly, properly, and at the right times of day can improve performance, minimize injury risk, and encourage mindfulness during your exercise routine. That said, like a balloon, too much stretching can be a bad thing—and you need to be mindful when incorporating it into your workout routine.
Here's everything you need to know about stretching.
Contrary to popular belief, stretching does not permanently lengthen muscles or change their structure. More likely, your brain becomes accustomed to the movement over time, which allows you to do it more often and easily without discomfort. Despite the myth behind the reason why we become more flexible through stretching, most experts will agree that stretching does increase flexibility. Plus, studies show that flexibility is associated with flexible arteries and reduced risk of cardiovascular events.
2. Balance and agility
Many of the activities used to improve flexibility—yoga, for example—also improve balance and agility. When your body becomes accustomed to a new range of motion, it slowly becomes the new normal, and you will find yourself able to do things you couldn't before. And whether you’re playing badminton or bending over to pick up groceries, an increased range of motion will help you move more efficiently and safely.
Proper stretching can correct muscle imbalances, help you make better use of your existing strength, and maximize your use of gravity and momentum. Paired with improved flexibility and agility, this can lead to improved functional performance overall.
4. Mental health
Finally, stretching doesn’t just help you physically—it can help you mentally. Slowly working through your stretching routine and paying attention to your body can encourage mindfulness. Even more promising, multiple studies show that movement, any movement at all, encourages a more positive mood.
The mistakes most people make
1. Stretching with improper form
With any form of exercise, there is a degree of risk. And just like any other exercise, many of the risks can be avoided with proper form. There is a consensus that stretching should never hurt. If there is any pain, stop immediately; mild discomfort is the limit. Improper form or pushing too far can lead to overextended muscles or even dislocated joints. Overextended muscles can cause strain and imbalances, negatively impacting your workouts and everyday functions.
2. Stretching at wrong time of day
Interestingly, one of the biggest risks of stretching is not just how it’s done, but when it’s done. While experts once recommended stretching before working out, recent studies associate traditional pre-exercise stretching (static stretching) with decreased performance and increased risk of injury. While stretching before a workout is a good idea, make sure to couple it with an effective warmup.
3. Doing the wrong kind of stretching
Not all stretches are created equal. Some are designed to warm up muscles, others to stretch them out slowly. Choosing which to do, and when, is essential to maximizing the stretches' benefit to your muscles. Read on for a more thorough breakdown of the different types of stretching and when to do them.
Static or passive stretches are probably the ones you’re most familiar with. These are the stretches you hold for 10 to 30 seconds, repeated several times, holding each pose while the muscles relax into it. These stretches usually focus on individual muscles like biceps, quads, or calves.
These stretches are relaxing. While experts used to encourage these stretches before and after workouts, more recent evidence suggests that static stretches may decrease performance and increase injury if done before a workout. The new recommendation is that static stretching be used after a workout, or alone as their own routine.
While static stretches relax the body, dynamic stretches get the body ready to work. Dynamic stretches engage you in constant motion, lasting only three to 10 seconds, while still stretching out the muscles you intend to use. They also focus more on the whole body than individual muscles. Dynamic stretching is essentially a warmup, and over the past 10 years has become the preferred pre-workout routine.
When you stretch immediately before exercise, this is acute stretching. Acute stretching can be good, but only if it’s the right kind. Acute dynamic stretching is the best way to prep for a workout—but avoid acute static stretching.
Stretching on a more regular basis or following a workout is called chronic stretching. It’s not done immediately before a workout or to prepare. Static stretching should be done on a continuous basis to maximize its benefits. You can work it in after a workout or get a session of stretches in at any time during the day to reap its rewards.