Perhaps one of the most overlooked components of a proper exercise program is that of flexibility exercises, otherwise known as stretching.
When someone says ‘stretching’, what do you think about?
A painful exercise that you need to do at the end of your workout – which you just don’t have time for?
Or maybe you think about exercises that you don’t really believe offer any full value or benefit.
Whatever the case, that’s about to change as I’m going to explain to you why stretching is so critical to success. Like it not, stretching needs to be a part of your regular workout program.
Even if you aren’t engaging in a regular workout routine, stretching should still be a part of your life. Everyone – young and old – needs to stretch.
To better understand the process that lack of stretching will have on your muscles, be sure to check out the video below, which explains this into great detail.
Before we dive in and talk more about the types of stretching exercises you can do, let’s talk about the benefits. Why do it in the first place?
Benefits Of Stretching
When you think about the benefits of stretching, the first thing that likely comes to mind is increased flexibility or range of motion.
The more often you stretch, the larger the range of motion you can move through. This is quite self-explanatory.
But, stretching offers a number of other key benefits as well.
Here’s how it can help.
Increased strength development
So you think that stretching can’t help boost your strength development.
While it seems clear that stretching isn’t a strength building exercise (after all, you aren’t using any weight!), it helps you in an indirect way.
When you maintain a greater range of motion in the exercises that you perform, this will in turn help you develop more strength overall.
Think of it this way. To really develop maximum strength when squatting, it’s essential that you squat all the way down as low to the ground as possible. Fail to do so and you won’t recruit the glute muscles fully.
But, if you are limited in your stretching and simply can’t go the full way down in the exercise, you have no choice but to only go halfway.
You don’t see the strength gains you should be.
Those who are very inflexible will be strictly limited by this inflexibility. Only stretching can help get them past this.
Stretching is also going to help improve your posture. Often those who sit hunched over at desks on a day to day basis find they start experiencing muscle shortening in certain areas of their back.
Over time, this can lead to a permanently shifted posture.
By stretching, you’ll help lengthen these muscles, which will help you stay standing upright.
Having improved posture will not only help you feel better and reduce neck and back soreness, but it’ll make you come across as more confident and self-assured as well.
Less risk of muscular imbalances
Muscle imbalances occur when one side of your body is much stronger than the other. Most people think this results from performing too much activity to one side, thus strengthening those muscles.
And while that’s one way it can develop, it’s not the only way.
You can also experience muscular imbalances thanks to being inflexible in certain muscles of the body. For instance, if your shoulder on your left side is tight and inflexible, you may start using other muscles to help execute shoulder targeted exercises.
Over time, this causes the shoulder muscles to become weaker and weaker on that one side, while the ones on the opposing side become stronger.
Let this go on long enough and you will see a clear strength imbalance develop.
Lower risk of injuries
Stretching will also go a long way towards helping you reduce your risk of injuries.
This is thanks to the fact you’ll get past those strength imbalances as just noted, but also because it’ll help ensure the ligaments and tendons connecting the joints are functioning as they should.
If the entire joint tenses up due to lack of flexibility, any time stress is placed on this joint, there is a higher chance that tendons or ligaments become strained.
Regular flexibly training can also help increase your energy. How will it do this?
It’ll help bring more oxygen into your system. This comes from both the increase in posture that you’ll maintain thanks to not being so stiff (and thus better air flow into the lunges), as well as simply due to the increase circulation of blood throughout the muscles as you stretch.
As this blood brings oxygen into the tissues, this in turn will help you sustain higher energy levels.
Think about all the older individuals you’ve seen over the last few weeks. How well were they moving?
Many, as you will have likely noticed, have serious mobility issues. Some may not even be able to stand up straight and when they do finally get upright, they walk very slowly.
Mobility is a huge thing as you grow older and if you aren’t flexible, it’s only going to limit you.
The unfortunate part of this is that you’ll lose flexibility rapidly with age if you don’t train for it, so it only gets worse as time goes on.
And once you’ve lost flexibility, it’s very hard to get back.
It’s very much a ‘use it or lose it principle’.
Decreased stress levels
Stretching is also great for lowering your stress levels. When you’re stretching, you’ll also be focusing on deep breathing, which can help you turn your focus inward to your body, helping ease any stress or tension you are experiencing.
Many people hold their stress and tension in their neck region, so a good stretching routine can help loosen up these tight muscle areas.
The more relaxed you feel in a physical sense, often the more relaxed you’ll be from a psychological sense as well.
Reduced risk of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
Finally, let’s not forget the fact that with regular routine stretching, you’ll also experience a lower risk of delayed onset muscle soreness.
You know the feeling – you wake up after a hard workout session and can hardly get out of bed. If you are regularly experiencing this, it could be due to the lack of stretching you’re doing in your workout routine.
Stretching will help to remove lactic acid build-up after a hard training session, which in turn would contribute to that sore and tight feeling.
As you can see, stretching comes with many great benefits. It’s too important to simply overlook and miss out on.
The Types Of Stretching
When it comes to stretching, it’s not as simple as hitting the stretching mats and going at it. There are certain types of stretching that you should know – some better for certain situations than others.
Let’s go over the main types so you can get a feel for what will work best for you.
When most people think of ‘stretching exercises’, they tend to think about static stretching.
This form of stretching entails you holding a position for 15-30 seconds (or longer), without moving.
- Increased range of motion
- Reduced stress and tension
- Serves as an excellent cool-down after a workout session.
Generally this form of stretching should be done towards the end of any physical activity you are performing, never before.
Dynamic stretching is the stretching variation that most people would think of when describing what they are doing for a warm-up. This stretching is a series of movements that are repeated over and over again, typically 10-15 times.
Think arm swings, leg swings, or gentle side bends.
- Increased circulation and blood flow to the muscles
- Enhanced range of motion
- Decreased injury risk for exercise performed after the stretching
You can do this stretching at just about any time of the day, as well as before or after exercise. Most people will include it prior to their workout routine.
Passive stretching can also be called partner assisted stretching. You don’t necessarily have to use a partner to do it however – you can use a strap or rubber tubing or any other object to help execute the stretch as well.
Passive stretching involves you using this partner/assistant object to help you stretch further than you normally would.
Imagine lying on you back, bringing one leg up towards your face and then having your partner gently push that leg towards you as you feel a deep stretch in the hamstring sand glutes.
That is passive stretching.
- Further range of motion than what you’d normally get from regular stretching
- Excellent stress relief
- Relaxation benefits
This form of stretching should also be done after exercise (or a warm-up) has been performed.
You should also be especially careful when doing this stretching that you aren’t being pushed too far. Light discomfort is fine, pain is not. Make sure that you know the difference.
Finally, the last form of stretching that you can do is active stretching. This form of stretching occurs when you use a partner or another object to assist you.
What you’ll do with active stretching is have the partner push the body part being stretched in one direction as you counteract it in the other. You’ll hold the tension in the muscle for 10 seconds or so and then relax, after which, the partner should be able to push you further.
For instance, taking that example of you lying on your back with your leg up, your partner will push the leg towards your chest while you try and oppose that, pushing your leg back to the ground.
Hold this and then when ready, relax your muscles and let them push it further towards your face. You’ll find that you are now more flexible than you were before.
- Offers a faster way to improve flexibility
- May pose some muscle strengthening benefits as well
This form of stretching should be done after a warm-up or exercise session has been completed as well.
You never want to perform this form of stretching cold.
There is no one perfect type of stretching. It all depends on the individual, their goals, as well as what types of activities you are planning to do.
There is one final type of stretching that you may have heard of before called ballistic stretching. This stretching however is often disregarded as a form as it tends to do more harm than good, so is not recommended.
In ballistic stretching, you’ll bounce to try and obtain a further range of motion. The movement pattern is typically very jerky and often uncontrolled, which can lead to injury if one isn’t very careful.
Unless done under strict supervision from a trained professional, ballistic stretching is not recommended. There are just not enough benefits to gain from it that you can’t get from one of the stretching varieties noted above.
Making The Most Of Your Stretching Routine
In order to reap maximum benefits from your stretching routine, there are some important things to know.
How you stretch can often be just as critical as if you stretch, so let’s show you how to get it right.
- Focus On Breathing
Perhaps the most important thing you must do to reap full benefits from stretching is to focus on your breathing.
When you start to move into the stretch and begin to feel the muscle tension, the number one thing most people do is hold their breath.
Do not do this.
Holding your breath will actually work against you, making the stretch harder and ensuring you feel greater discomfort. When you hold your breath, your muscles will become tighter, which is in direct opposition of what you are aiming to accomplish here.
Instead, focus on breathing deeply. Inhale slowly for a count of 15-20, hold your breath for a brief pause at the top, and then exhale in a very slow and controlled manner as well.
If you breath properly, this will actually help loosen up the muscles, moving you deeper into the stretch.
- Stretch At The Proper Time
Next you need to time your stretching properly. You should be doing static stretching, active stretching, as well as passive stretching towards the end of an exercise session, or at the very least, after a warm-up has been performed.
Never do this stretching at the start when you’re feeling cold and tight. Do that and you’ll be on route to pulling a muscle.
Dedicate 10 minutes towards the end of a workout to perform your stretching. It will be 10 minutes very well spent.
- Stretch Daily
If you want to really see results from your stretching routine, it’s important that you get into the habit of stretching daily, or as close to daily as possible.
Many people make the mistake of stretching only after their workouts (which often ends up being 3-4 times per week depending on how dedicated you are).
While this is a great start, if you really want to see optimal results, you’ll want to stretch daily.
If you aren’t exercising that day, no problem. Just perform a brief warm-up in your home (or wherever you plan to stretch) and then dive right into the stretching.
Flexibility is one thing that you’ll lose very quickly if you aren’t continuously working on it, so regular stretching is an absolute must.
If you can’t seem to find the time, focus on stretching while you watch TV. As most people are watching at least an hour of TV a day, this means there’s really no reason you shouldn’t be able to get your stretching in.
- Perform Each Stretching Exercise Twice
Another quick tip to help get more from your stretching exercises is to perform each stretch twice. Do your stretch, hold it, breath, and then relax.
Now go back and do it again.
You’ll very often find that you’re more flexible during that second stretch, which will really help you move your flexibly progress up a notch.
If you have time, you could even do it three times over if you prefer.
- Hold Your Stretches
It should go without saying, but to clarify, each stretch you are doing (apart from dynamic stretching) should be held for at least 10 seconds, if not more.
For passive and static stretching, 30-60 seconds is ideal.
For active stretching, you may hold for slightly less time (10-15 seconds), however you’ll typically repeat it 3-4 times.
The moral of the story here is that you need to give the muscle fibers time to relax and be lengthened. If you only hold the stretch for a few seconds at most, you simply aren’t reaping muscle flexibility training benefits.
Plus, you won’t be able to make use of a few deep breaths to help you move further into each stretch as well.
- Know Your Limits
Finally, make sure that you know your limits. When you are stretching, it’s likely that you will start to feel some discomfort along the way. You’ll feel tension in the muscle and may start to feel it slightly pull as you lower into the stretch.
You should never feel pain, however. If you are very uncomfortable or the pain is rather sharp, move out of the stretch immediately.
Stretching in the wrong way can quickly cause you to become injured, so you need to know the difference between good stretching pain and bad stretching pain.
To finish up, let’s look at some frequently asked questions about stretching.
Frequently Asked Questions About Stretching
- Can I stretch an injured area?
Tread carefully here. Speak to a medical professional as the answer will depend on the stretch you are doing. In some cases it will help, in others it may hinder.
Remember the rule: stretching should never be painful.
- Should I stretch when I’m sore?
Yes! You’ll need to take it a bit slower and realize you may not have as great of a range of motion when sore, but if you are experiencing DOMS, stretching can help you get over this.
- How long will it take for me to develop more flexibility?
This will depend on the individual and how dedicated he or she is to their stretching routine. Expect to start seeing benefits after about one week of consistent daily stretching.
- Will stretching reduce strength levels? Is it okay to stretch between sets?
No and yes. Light stretching, if anything, will increase your muscular strength as you’ll be releasing tension held in the muscle.
You can and should do light stretching between exercise sets. Note that in this case, holding the stretch for 5 seconds is sufficient. The idea is to prevent lactic acid and built up tension from restricting your range of motion.
- Do I need to stretch all my muscle groups?
Your stretching program should include stretches for all the main muscle groups. However, at times, you may find that you only need to stretch muscles that are sore or that have just been worked.
Use your best judgment, but do be sure that at some point, you are stretching all your main muscles.
So there you have all the details you need to know about stretching. I’d recommend seeking out a professional to help you get a stretching routine together.
Stretching can also be a great part of an overall recovery program that includes the stretching, foam rolling, as well as massage therapy.
Want to learn more about what you can do to optimize your overall well-being? Check out my 84 day course that will walk you through all the many ways you can achieve ultimate health standing.