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Stretching and Flexibility: 7 Tips

Expert advice on how to stretch and stretching mistakes to avoid.
By Michael Esco, PhD
WebMD Commentary

I often see athletes and exercise enthusiasts stretching incorrectly, despite their good intentions. That can be risky, and no one wants to get injured. So here are seven suggestions to keep in mind when you start a stretching routine.

woman stretching

1. There is a difference between flexibility and stretching.

Flexibility refers to the range of motion for a given joint. The degree of flexibility that a person has is influenced by muscles and connective tissues, like ligaments and tendons. Stretching is a form of exercise that can lead to an increase in flexibility.

2. The optimal amount of flexibility is different for everyone.

Unless a joint is hurt, limited range of motion may be due to tight or stiff muscles. This is linked to injuries, chronic pain, and poor posture. If your muscles are too tight, then you might need to stretch.

However, being too flexible may not be good, either. Muscles that are too loose may be weak. This could cause joint instability and dislocation. If you are overly flexible, then you may need to strengthen your muscles and joints with resistance training.

The appropriate amount of flexibility that you need is specific to the primary movements of your daily life or sport. For example, baseball pitchers need more flexibility in their shoulders compared to runners. Cyclists need less flexibility in their legs than martial artists. Even putting a bag of groceries away or pushing a grass mower requires some flexibility.

But being able to stretch your leg behind your head is a bit extreme. "Everything in moderation" -- this saying holds true when it comes to flexibility.

3. Perform static stretching at the right time.

Static stretching involves slowly stretching a muscle to its end position and holding it for a short period of time, usually 10-30 seconds. This is the most common form of stretching and is most often done to warm up for exercise -- but that is a big mistake.

Don't bend down and touch your toes to stretch your legs before running. Don't hold your hands together behind the back to stretch the chest before you bench press. Static stretching is not recommended for warming up. It can actually hurt your performance and make injury more likely if you do it right before exercise.

Why? Think of it this way: Rubber bands and muscles are similar in that they both have elastic properties. A rubber band that's too stretchy cannot be pulled back quickly enough to provide a strong "pop." Likewise, an overly elastic muscle has to work harder to generate the appropriate level of power. This can overtax and strain a muscle.

Most of the recent research suggests that static stretching right before playing a sport or exercising can impair performance, such as reducing jumping height, lowering muscular strength and power, and slowing sprint time.

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