Flexibility: The Importance Of Stretching

Why it's essential and what's the best way to do it?

We have all been taught, probably since the first day of PE class, that you must stretch-stretch-stretch before and after every workout. Yet many of us have no idea what stretching does for us, and don’t bother to do it. Worse still, we rush through a quick stretching routine that is not only ineffective but sets us up for potential injuries. Proper stretching does play a very important role in both overall health and performance in workouts or sports.

Just what does stretching do for our bodies?

One of the primary benefits of regular stretching is that it can help prevent muscular imbalances. Because no one has perfectly symmetrical muscular development, and we all tend to use one side of the body more than the other, we create a situation in which some muscles must overcompensate for others. This leads to muscular weaknesses and underdevelopment in some areas of the body. Stretching regularly helps to lengthen tight overused muscles and strengthen underused muscles. Correcting musculoskeletal imbalances can help ease everyday aches and pains, improve posture and alleviate lower back pain.

What is the best way to stretch?

There is great debate as to the best method of stretching, as well as whether it is most advisable to stretch out before or after a workout. It is possible to actually injure oneself form over-zealous stretching, so it is very important to practice good form. One kind of stretching that is no longer recommended by the majority of fitness experts is ‘ballistic stretching’. This practice involves bouncing while stretching, and can result in muscle strains and tears. Instead, experts recommend that you stretch slowly, and only as deeply as you can comfortably go, and that you hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. It is important that you feel the stretch through the muscle and not in the joints.

One thing that stretching cannot do is directly improve sports performance. Stretching before a soccer game in no way helps to garner the team a win. Rather, a regular routine of stretching will help to increase flexibility that offers a degree of protection from injury over time. Flexible muscles also recover more quickly from injuries, and stretching gently can even help to speed the recovery process. Most fitness experts recommend that you only stretch after your muscles have warmed up. In fact, a recent study in the Sports Injury Bulletin found that “investigation determined that stretching carried out AFTER workouts actually lowered injury risk, while pre-workout stretching increased it. To be protective, stretching apparently must be conducted when muscles are warm and less viscous - and therefore less resistant to being stretched out.”

Stretching incorrectly can cause injury in itself, so be certain to research some safe stretches for each muscle group. Additionally, when you are stretching, you should always move slowly and gently into the stretch. Bouncing while stretching can cause small muscle tears or pulls or tears. Lastly, you should never feel any pain while stretching- if you do stop or reduce the intensity of the stretch immediately. When practiced correctly, stretching is an essential part of any fitness regimen and can help you to avoid injury, increase flexibility and have better posture.