Stretching is one of the fastest growing types of exercise in America today. Stretching is a form of physical activity that targets a specific muscle group. It works to elongate the muscle fibers to their fullest length in order to improve the muscle’s elasticity, or flexibility. Stretching results in an increased feeling of muscle control, flexibility, and range of motion.
Stretching should be part of your everyday life whether you are an elite athlete or someone who sits at a desk all day. It is a relaxing activity that prepares the body for movement and helps you make the regular transition from inactivity to strenuous activity without unnecessary strain. Although the research regarding stretching and the prevention of injury are very controversial, stretching is proven to do many other things. A strong, flexible, pre-stretched muscle resists stress better than a strong, stiff, non-stretched muscle.6 Stretching allows you to get in touch with your muscles and learn about your body’s limits, as well as its abilities. One of the most important benefits of stretching is the promotion of relaxation. Excessive muscular tension tends to decrease sensory awareness and raise blood pressure. It also is a waste of energy; a relaxed muscle uses little energy compared to a stressed, contracting muscle. Many athletes deliberately stretch before and/or after exercise in order to increase performance and reduce the risk of injury because stretching is a way of signaling the muscles that they are about to be used. You may find that regular stretching will result in the following benefits:
- Reduced muscle tension and an increase in feeling of relaxation
- Increased coordination by allowing easier movement
- Increased range of motion
- Prevention of injuries
- Prolonged level of flexibility
- Prevention of post-exercise muscle soreness
Who should stretch?
Regardless of your age or flexibility, everyone can learn to stretch. There is a misconception that only individuals in top physical condition, who are regularly active, benefit from stretching. This is far from the truth. Whether you sit at a desk, cook in the kitchen, drive a truck, or exercise regularly, the same stretching techniques apply. The techniques conform to individual differences in muscle tension and flexibility.
*Note: Please consult your health care professional before you start a stretching program if you have had any recent physical problems or surgery, or if you have been inactive or sedentary for some time.
When should you stretch?
The benefits of stretching are not felt overnight. Therefore, it is important to stretch daily to maintain or increase flexibility and relaxation. Generally speaking, stretching can be done whenever you feel like it: at work, at home, in the park, or at the gym. You do not need a large area or special equipment to stretch properly. You should stretch before and after physical activity, but when you can, also stretch at various times of the day. Here are some examples of when you could stretch:
- In the morning before you leave your bed
- At work to release tension
- After sitting or standing for a long period of time
- When you feel stiff
- When you’re watching TV or reading
How should you stretch?
Stretching is easy, but when it is done incorrectly it can do more harm than good. This is why it is essential to understand the proper techniques of stretching. The greatest thing about stretching is that it is adjustable to the individual. Each one of our bodies are unique in strength, endurance, and flexibility and although there are research-based techniques and tips for stretching, it can always be modified to meet your individual needs. It is important to note that it is the quality of the stretch, not the quantity of the stretch, that determines the degree of flexibility. Therefore, the common misunderstanding of “no pain no gain” is NOT true with stretching. Pain is an indication that something is wrong and you should modify your stretch immediately. Stretching should be comfortable and enjoyable. Go to the point where you feel mild tension and relax as you hold the stretch. The feeling of tension should subside as you hold the position. If it does not, ease off slightly and find a degree of tension that is comfortable. Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds and maintain a steady breathing pattern during the duration of the stretch. You should wear loose and comfortable clothing and have a positive mental attitude to maximize relaxation. Below are some of the most common mistakes made when stretching:
- Improper warm-up; stretching is not a warm-up. Stretching with cold muscles will often result in injury. To get the body warmed-up, walk for 5 to 10 minutes prior to stretching.
- Bouncing up and down; this also will result in injury. Keep a steady position with a constant, comfortable tension on the muscle being stretched.
What should you stretch?
Stretching should target specific muscle groups. Below are descriptions of common stretches for some of the major muscle groups.
Hamstrings (backside of thigh): Perform this stretch in a lying position on your back. Begin with both legs straight on the ground, then slightly lean forward and with your arms, gently pull one leg at a time toward your chest until you feel a stretch in the butt and upper hamstring. Hold the position for 15 to 20 seconds, then switch legs.
Quadriceps (frontside of thigh): Perform this stretch in a standing position. If needed, position yourself next to a table, chair, or railing for balance support. Standing upright, raise one heel behind you toward your butt. Reach around with the opposite hand and grab the ankle that you have lifted. Gently pull ankle toward your butt until you feel a stretch in your quad muscles. Keep your knees as even as possible. Hold position for 15 to 20 seconds, then switch legs.
Calves (backside of lower leg): Perform this stretch in a standing position. Stand 1 to 2 feet away from a wall and lean on it with your forearms, head resting on your hands. Bend one leg and place your foot on the ground slightly in front of you, with the other leg straight behind. Slowly move your hips forward, keeping your lower back flat, until you feel a stretch in the calf muscle in the back leg. Be sure to keep the heel of the leg behind you flat on the ground, with toes pointed straight ahead. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds, then switch legs.
Elongation Stretch: Perform this stretch in a lying position on your back. Extend your arms overhead and straighten out your legs. Now reach as far as is comfortable in the opposite direction with your arms and legs (extend your fingers and point your toes). Hold for 15 seconds, then relax and repeat.
Spinal Roll: Perform this stretch in a sitting position. Sitting on a mat or rug, hold your knees with your hands and pull them to your chest. Lean your head forward and curl your shoulders into your knees, curving your back. Using your arms, pull your knees toward your chest until you feel a stretch down both sides of your back. Hold for 15 seconds, then relax and repeat.
Front of Shoulders: Perform this stretch in a standing position. Interlace your fingers behind your back and slowly turn your elbows inward while straightening your arms. If this is fairly easy, then lift your arms up behind you until you feel a stretch in your upper arms, shoulders, and chest. Keep your chest out and chin in. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
Chest Stretch: Perform this stretch in a sitting position. With your fingers interlaced behind your head, keep your elbows straight out to your side with your upper body in an upright position. Pull your shoulder blades together until you feel a stretch through your pectoral (chest) muscles. Hold for 15 seconds, then relax and repeat.
Butterfly Stretch: Perform this stretch in a sitting position. Bend your knees and slowly bring both your feet in toward your body, keeping them in contact with the ground. Position your feet so the sole of one foot is touching the other. Using your hands, slowly pull your feet toward your body and use your elbows to push both knees toward the ground until you feel a stretch on both sides of your groin. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
Triceps (backside of upper arm): Perform this stretch in a standing or sitting position. With arms overhead, hold the elbow of one arm with the hand of the other. Gently pull the elbow behind your head, creating a stretch in the triceps of the arm being pulled. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds, then switch arms.
Forearms and Wrists: Perform this stretch in a sitting, standing, or lying position. Fully extend your arm so it is straight out in front of you, with your palms facing upward. With the opposite hand, grab the fingers of the outstretched hand and pull them downward toward the floor until you feel a stretch in your forearm and wrist. Hold for 10 seconds, then switch arms and repeat.
- Anderson, B. (2000). Stretching . Bolinas, California: Shelter Publications, Inc.
- Pfeiffer, R.P., & Mangus, B.C. (Ed.) (2008). Concepts of Athletic Training. (5th ed.). Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
- Alter, M.J. (1988). Science of Stretching. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books.
- Roberts, C.K., & Barnard, R.J. (2005). Effects of exercise and diet on chronic disease. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98, 3-30.
- Appleton, B. Stretching and Flexibility: How to Stretch. Date accessed 8 Feb