The Forgotten Art of Stretching


Whether you're in personal training or not, regular stretching has a myriad of benefits. I’m sure you’ve heard that stretching increases flexibility and range of motion while decreasing the risk of injuries, including muscle strains and tendonitis.

But did you know that stretching has a soothing affect? As you stretch, muscle tension dissipates, which allows you to fully relax, physically and mentally. Stretching has other important mind-body effects: stretching helps loosen the mind’s control over the body—allowing it to move more freely on its own. At the same time, stretching puts you in touch with different parts of your body that you may have been neglecting, ultimately developing overall body awareness.

For those of us who are involved in some sort of physical activity, perhaps the most important benefit is that stretching makes other activities easier. By stretching regularly at the end of your workout, you’ll find that you become a better runner, swimmer, bicyclist, etc. Even though stretching may not be your favorite gym activity, it’s an important one.

If you don’t work out, you can still get some of the benefits of stretching—you can do it throughout the day, especially if you feel tense or have been standing or sitting for a long period of time. (I’ll post more about stretching at work tomorrow.)

The Four Types of Stretches

Even if you’re not a fitness nut, you’re probably familiar with static stretching. These are the stretches you hold for a set period of time without any movement. They are popular because they are considered safe and fairly effective at improving flexibility. Static stretching is best done at the end of your workout, when your muscles are warm. This has the added benefit of helping your muscles recover more quickly.

Dynamic stretching involves repeating a challenging but comfortable motion over and over. It is very useful for increasing range of motion, which can benefit you in sports or daily life. However, it does require more coordination; it’s extremely important that your motions are controlled and not erratic. Jerky motions can increase your risk of injury. Dynamic stretching is a great way to start your workout.

Passive stretching involves some sort of outside assistance to complete the stretch, such as your body weight, a strap, another person, or a stretching device. When runners stretch their calves using a stair, they are engaging in a passive stretch because they are using something other than their bodies to stretch. Passive stretching is usually pretty easy; you simply relax the muscle you’re stretching and use external force to maintain constant pressure.

In contrast to passive stretching, active stretching does not use any external force. You stretch a muscle by actively contracting it. For example, a lunge would be an example of an active stretch. Active stretching requires more muscular force than passive stretching, but it is less likely to cause injury, as you don’t have to contend with an external force that may overpower you. If you’ve ever been smacked with a resistance band, you know what I mean.

How to Stretch Safely

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “No pain, no gain.” While that is certainly true for some exercises, it couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to stretching. In fact, if you feel pain—as opposed to discomfort—while stretching, that’s an indication that you’re taking the stretch too far. Let off slightly and find a degree of tension that is comfortable. Pay attention to your body and go deeper into the stretch only when you’re ready. It may take several stretching sessions to see improvement in your flexibility.

A few additional tips: Make sure your muscles are warm before you stretch, and move into a deeper stretch as you slowly exhale (never hold your breath). Always start with easy stretches, which reduce muscle tightness and tension. Only then should you attempt a more challenging stretch, often referred to as a developmental stretch.

(Photo from FurLined on Flickr Creative Commons.)