How many times have you heard the advice "Don't forget to stretch?" But when it comes to stretching, there are so many mixed messages from when you're supposed to do it (before exercise? after? before and after?), to how long to hold a stretch, to the best ways to do it, to why to do it in the first place. Here's a primer to help you get to the bottom of all those claims and unanswered questions.
A systematic review of studies that addressed the impact of stretching on sports injury risk published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise notes that the jury is still out on whether or not stretching can prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes. However, flexibility exercises when done after a workout or at least after a brief cardio warm-up do help to maintain circulation around the joints, keeping muscles healthy where they're most apt to get injured.
Stretching allows the body to move more efficiently and perform at its peak. During the course of a workout, muscles begin to shorten as they fatigue. This impedes your ability to generate speed and power and leads to a less efficient, shorter, more shuffling stride. Stretching keeps muscles elongated, reducing this tendency.
It can make you stronger. Some research shows that stretching the muscle group you just worked between sets can increase strength gains by 19 percent.
It's an incredibly soothing way to connect your mind and body, and it simply feels great!
When to stretch
You can stretch anytime you feel like, or you can do so in conjunction with other activities. Just remember: After any type of physical activity—cardio, strength training or sports—stretch every muscle group you used, holding each for 30 seconds. Muscles are warmer and more pliable then, making them easier to lengthen. Vigorous stretching before exercise, when muscles are cold and less pliable, will produce less benefit and may leave tendons more susceptible to injury. A good rule of thumb is to start your workout with a five-minute cardio warm-up, stretch gently, follow your usual routine, then do more serious stretching after.
Mistakes to avoid
Don't bounce. Using momentum to increase your stretch can activate the body's protective reflex, causing the muscles to contract instead of stretch, which can lead to small tears.
Don't stretch to the point of pain. While you may experience a little discomfort in an area that is tight, actual pain is your body's way of letting you know something is wrong.
Don't forget to breathe. Not only is oxygen exchange necessary for the muscle to respond in a beneficial way to a stretch, but holding your breath may temporarily increase blood pressure. Focus on inhaling as you get in position for the stretch and exhaling as you move into it. Keep your breathing slow and regular.