- It improves your workouts: “Stretching is a simple and effective activity that helps to enhance athletic performance, decrease the likelihood of injury, and assists with injury rehabilitation,” says Brad Walker, author of “Ultimate Guide to Stretching" and the Director of Education at StretchLab, an L.A.-based assisted stretching franchise concept, that offers both one-on-one stretching and group classes. “As a result, a reduction in general muscle tension is achieved and our ability to bend, reach and turn is improved. How exactly does an increase in range of motion translate to our weekly bootcamp or yoga class? "I’ve been able to work out harder and more efficiently by maintaining my flexibility and range of motion throughout all of my joints by stretching," says Ford. "A greater range of motion can lead to gains in physical performance. For instance, if you have tight hips and a lower back, you’ll be limited in your range of motion during a squat or lunge exercise. This means that you can’t fully utilize all the muscles used during the motion, plus you’ll most likely also be putting more pressure on the supporting ligaments of the joints used. As you improve your flexibility you will be able to use the proper muscles during the movement and those muscles to better effect."
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- And it improves normal, everyday movements, too: "Another way in which stretching can be helpful is by leaving you better prepared to perform everyday physical activities. From carrying bags, to moving items in your office or home, or even running to catch the subway," says Ford. While we tend to think of stretching in terms of enhancing our physical fitness routine, Ramsey adds that "stretching compliments and enhances everything else we do throughout the day” as well.
- It can help you de-stress: "Finally, stretching can be really relaxing. The best forms of stretching include a breathing component that connects breath to movement, ala yoga," says Ford. "When you’re taking deep breaths and really feeling and listening to your body while stretching, it works almost as a form of meditation. I always feel more centered after my post-workout static stretch."
The 3 types of people who need to stretch more often
“There are a few different groups of people who tend to suffer a little more than others when it comes to stiff, tight muscles,” says Walker. If you fall into one of these categories, it may be time to start scheduling stretch sessions into your weekly routine:
- You sit a lot. “Whether office workers behind a desk or drivers behind a steering wheel, the sitting position causes a lot of issues with the upper back, neck and shoulders,” says Walker. Ford agrees: "People leading more sedentary lives benefit greatly from stretching. Specifically, when it comes to their hamstrings and lower back," he says.
- You stand a lot. “The next group are the opposite of the first. These are the people who spend a lot of time standing, which causes a lot of issues with the lower back, hips and calves,” says Walker.
- You’re an athlete. “Athletes or those competing in sports recreationally also will see benefits," says Ford. "Whether it is increases in range of motion that lead to greater mobility on the field or increases in strength and speed. They will also find that stretching can help with the recovery process helping to realign damaged fibers and loosen stiff muscles."
Do you pass the flexibility test?
“There are certainly healthy ranges of motion that the average person should be able to achieve,” says Walker. He recommends these two flexibility tests that can help you gauge where you stand:
- The sit-and-reach test: Sit with legs straight out in front, toes pointing up and reaching forward with fingertips towards your toes. The result of this test is a great indication of the flexibility of the muscles that make up the posterior chain (neck, upper back, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, calves). A fair to average result for most people would be the ability to get within a range of 2 inches before or after their toes.
- Apley’s shoulder mobility test: Reach one arm up and behind your back and the other arm down and behind your back, and see how close your fingertips come to touching each other. The result of this test is a great indication of the flexibility of the muscles that make up the shoulder girdle (chest, upper back, shoulders). A fair to average result for most people would be the ability to get their fingertips within 1 inch of each other.”
Okay, so how can we actually get more flexible?
If you didn’t perform as well on the tests as you’d like, it may be time to start putting in work to increase your flexibility.
The type of stretching someone does before or after a workout is very different from the type of stretching that is required to improve flexibility and range of motion.
“The type of stretching someone does before or after a workout is very different from the type of stretching that is required to improve flexibility and range of motion,” says Walker. “The purpose of a warm up or cool down is not to improve flexibility; it’s to prepare your body for activity or to restore your body to a pre-exercise level. If your goal is to improve your flexibility, then stretching should be seen as its own session, just as strength training or cardiovascular training is its own session.”
The good news is, once you commit to a regular stretching program, changes begin to occur within the muscles. "Other tissues that begin to adapt to the stretching process include the tendons, fascia, skin and scar tissue,” adds Walker. Here's where to start:
Do a body inventory. Stretching is a highly individualized activity, so start by tuning into your body. “Understanding which stretches will work for you all starts with listening to your body. After all, if the main source of tension is in the shoulders, then exhaustive hamstring stretches may not be the most effective,” says Ramsey. “Listening to your body gets easier over time, if done regularly. Simply pay attention to those areas where you feel aches or pains.”
Consider consulting a professional. While a full-body stretch is never a bad idea, a professional can help you identify your specific trouble zones. “Some people are tighter in the front of their bodies (chest, shoulders, hips), while others are tighter in the back of their bodies (lower back, hamstrings, calves). Some even have imbalances from one side of the body to the other,” says Walker. “The best thing you can do is come to understand what your body needs, or have a [professional] assess you during a one-on-one stretching session, and address your personal imbalances and tight spots.” Consulting a professional doesn’t have to break the bank: stretch and mobility classes are offered through ClassPass and are on the schedule at gyms like Planet Fitness, Equinox and Gold’s Gym, and boutique studios offer special rates for first time clients (at StretchLab, you can get a 25 minute one-on-one session for just $29.)