Whether you’re cooling down after a run or doing a few stretches at your desk when work is starting to become a pain in the neck (literally), most of us recognize the benefit of stretching.
But we can also probably admit we aren’t doing enough of it. The problem is, we tend to think of it as a bookend to more strenuous exercise — a form of movement used to warm up before you get to the real work or cool down afterwards. But stretching is actually a vital, albeit overlooked, form of exercise, and experts say that the body should be engaging in it on a consistent basis.
According to John Ford, certified exercise physiologist, owner of JKF Fitness & Health in New York City, flexibility is one of the five components of fitness, which can have it's own tailored exercise program to get specific improvements. "When we talk about stretching we are describing an exercise that can maintain or improve a person’s flexibility. Flexibility is defined as the range of motion of a joint or group of joints. The range of motion of any particular joint is dependent on the makeup of your muscles, your physical activity/exercise, your anatomical structure (shout out to the double jointed among us), age and gender. Thus, stretching for flexibility is designed to actively target the range of motion."
Just as other forms of body conditioning like strength training and cardio are a necessary part of a fitness routine, “stretching should not be overlooked,” adds Kevin Ramsey, Lead Stretch Therapist at Massage Envy. “Stretching helps to resolve tension in the muscles. When this tension is resolved, muscles have a better chance of getting the circulation they need to function normally. Circulation is vital in all tissues of the body because this is how nutrition is distributed throughout the tissues. To that extent, stretching may be seen as a form of self-care or conditioning all on its own.”
What stretching does for the body
While stretching is a movement we certainly can perform at home, it’s becoming increasingly popular in the fitness space, not only on class schedules at big box gyms, but with boutique studios dedicated solely to stretching. “Assisted stretching, done with the help of a professional service provider or stretching ‘coach,’ is proven to increase mobility, flexibility and blood flow and improve how muscles function,” says Ramsey.
Here are a few of the other benefits that can be reaped from a consistent stretching routine:
- It helps muscles heal: Perhaps the most recognized benefit of stretching — and most commonly applied use — is as a recovery after strenuous exercise. "One of the main benefits of stretching is realigning tissue within the muscle and connective tendons. During physical activity, fibers can often become disorganized and stressed. Stretching helps to realign them so that they can heal properly," says Ford. "During strenuous activity muscle fibers can become overly contracted. If not properly stretched and smoothed, the fibers can be more prone to pulls, tears and a shortening of their range of motion. That’s where a good full body static stretch routine performed while the body is still warm from your cool down can be most beneficial, because your muscles are most receptive at that point."
- It prevents everyday aches and pains: When you start to notice minor aches and discomfort or limited movement in certain muscles, you may brush it off as normal tension that results from sitting at a desk, carrying a heavy load of groceries or pushing through a tough workout. But “this is the body’s way of communicating that certain muscles need some extra attention in order to facilitate better circulation and to recover faster,” says Ramsey. “If this tension is resolved, the aches tend to diminish or go away and the muscles are returned to normal function. However, if the tension in the muscle is not resolved, the muscle tends to ‘guard’ by tightening, which may continue to limit mobility and flexibility, and the body may continue to experience some level of aches or pains. Stretching, if done correctly, is one of the simplest forms of body maintenance, which almost anyone can do on their own.” Ford agrees: "I attribute proper stretching to a broad range of my athletic accomplishments and current capabilities. As a former competitive athlete, I deal with a lot of joint pain and overuse injuries. Joint pain can often be attributed to tight muscles. Stretching is one of the most effective ways to loosen those tight muscles."
Stretching, if done correctly, is one of the simplest forms of body maintenance, which almost anyone can do on their own.
- 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."
- 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."
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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.)
If you want to improve your flexibility and range of motion on a permanent, long term basis you need at least two to three (30 to 60 minute) dedicated stretching sessions a week.
Schedule a stretch session 2-3 times a week. “Stretching is no different to any other form of exercise," says Ramsey. "If you want to get stronger, you need to do strength work at least two to three times a week. If you want to improve your cardiovascular fitness, then you need to do aerobic exercise at least two to three times a week. If you want to improve your flexibility and range of motion on a permanent, long term basis you need at least two to three (30 to 60 minute) dedicated stretching sessions a week.”
Hold each stretch for 30 seconds. In both the sitting and standing stretch program Ford prescribes his clients, he instructs them to hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. Ramsey agrees: “The stretch reflex is designed as a protective mechanism in the body, which helps to keep over-taxed muscles in a safe range of motion until the tension resolves and the muscle can return to normal function. Research shows that holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more allows the muscle to overcome the stretch reflex and continue to relax and release, creating more nerve activity and circulatory activity, which helps to resolve the existing tension.”
Don’t push a muscle too far. Most importantly, take your time and ease into stretching. “It is important to note that stretching should always be done safely and within the muscles limitations,” says Ramsey. “In other words, challenging the muscle is good, but not to a point of pain. Stretching should always be comfortable.”
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