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.
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.
Static stretching is not bad. As a matter of fact, it can be the safest and most effective form of stretching. It just simply should not be done as a warm-up.
That's why I (and many other experts) suggest that you save static stretching for a cool-down activity, after you're done exercising, or as the main point of your workout (after you have warmed up). During this time, the muscles are warm, more elastic, and less likely to become injured.
Never statically stretch a cold muscle. Cold muscles are more likely to tear when stretched improperly. Be sure to warm-up with active, dynamic movement -- next, I'll tell you how.
4. Use dynamic movement as a warm-up for exercise.
The best way to warm up for exercise is to perform low-intensity, dynamic movement that is similar to the main type of activity that you will perform. Here are three examples:
- You're going to jog three miles. First, do some dynamic movement to warm up: slowly walk, gradually speeding up for about five minutes.
- You're about to do a set of bench presses. First, bench press a much lighter load -- one that is about 50% to 70% lighter than what you're planning to lift later. Do 2-3 sets of those light bench presses (10-15 repetitions per set).
- You're going to stretch your leg muscles. First, do some high knee marches and walking lunges to warm up those muscles.
Movements such as arm circles, jumping jacks, and rope skipping are other good dynamic choices for warming up. Low-intensity activity will gradually raise your heart rate and increase blood flow to the muscles. It will also slowly warm up your body's temperature, so you may even break a little sweat.
5. Don't overstretch.
It is true that you must stretch and hold a muscle beyond its normal length to improve flexibility.
However, you should not stretch to the point of pain, because it could do serious damage: tearing a muscle, spraining a ligament, or dislocating a joint.
Only stretch a muscle to a comfortable point and hold for about 15 seconds or so.
6. Don't bounce.
This is a common mistake that I see beginners make with stretching.
A ballistic stretch uses vigorous momentum, such as rocking a body part back and forth to create a "bouncing" motion. This may make it harder to control the force and range of motion -- a recipe for disaster.
Ballistic, or bouncing-style stretching is not recommended for most people, especially if you are a beginner or recovering from an injury.
7. Fact-check your technique.
Follow research-supported recommendations or seek help from a qualified professional. A general stretching program should follow the guidelines set forth by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The ACSM recommends at least two to three days per week of stretching activities. After properly warming up with dynamic activity (e.g., walking), static stretches should be held for 10 to 30 seconds per repetition with approximately four repetitions per muscle group. Do multiple stretches of your major muscle groups.
Remember, everyone is different, and so are their flexibility and stretching needs. So don't compare yourself to anyone else.
A qualified professional can be extremely helpful with establishing a program that's right for your unique needs. If you are a beginner, then I recommend that you speak to a certified personal trainer who has at least a bachelor's degree in an exercise-related field. Talk to a licensed physical therapist if you have a health condition such as osteoporosis, arthritis, or chronic back pain.
Michael R. Esco, PhD, is an associate professor of exercise science and co-director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Montgomery, Ala. His opinions and conclusions are his own.