No matter your fitness routine, stretching should always be incorporated but is often overlooked. Building muscle is important for strength, but stretching is equally important, if not more, for muscle recovery, to protect joint mobility, and increase range of motion. I’ve often heard muscles compared to a rubber band; if a rubber band sits unused for long enough when you try to stretch it, it snaps in half. But when stretched regularly, it maintains its’ flexibility and strength. Think of the muscles like a rubber band in that what doesn’t bend, will break.
Without regular stretching, the muscles become shorter and tighter, and when it’s time to work them during activity, they cannot fully extend. This increases the risk of injury in the form of joint pain, strains, and even muscle tears.
Below are some of the main benefits of a regular stretching routine:
Injury prevention: The more a joint and muscle are prepared for an exercise, the more prepared they are to carry out the movement. Think of doing a warm-up before class. A good warm-up should literally warm you up prior to exercising, as cold muscles and tendons have a greater likelihood of injury.
Improved joint health: Stretching is one of the best ways to supply blood flow to the joints. This increased blood flow and circulation enables greater amounts of oxygen and nutrients to reach the dense tendons and ligaments, as well as promote the flow of synovial fluid, an essential component of joint lubrication and movement. The increase of oxygen, nutrients, and synovial fluid all contribute to reduced soreness and inflammation.
Flexibility and range of motion: Improper body mechanics (think iPhone neck), sitting for long periods of time, and repetitive movements all contribute to misalignment in the body and the shortening and tightening of muscles, putting them at risk of being chronically tense. Regular stretching helps to loosen and elongate the muscles, increasing their flexibility over time. When the muscles and surrounding connective tissues are able to be flexible, the range of motion increases and will carry over into other movements. Your squats may become deeper, enabling you to work the muscles in their full range of motion.
Reduced pain after exercise: With all of the information listed above, it’s easier to see how stretching can improve joint and muscle health. Stretching allows muscles and connective tissue on all sides of a joint to get an equal amount of pull so that the joint can move more freely in all directions. This allows for optimal movement and less stress on the body. Regular stretching can help decrease stiff muscles, thus decreasing pain.
An exercise routine that includes regular stretching will only help increase agility, power, and muscular strength. Just like anything else, it is a practice that takes time. But with practice, it will become easier and flexibility will increase.
Often times we think of stretching as the warm-up, but studies have been showing that going right into stretching with cold muscles can increase injury. Stretching is most effective when the muscles are already warm, and it’s best to stretch after exercise. But if stretching is going be done before exercise, do some light cardio to warm up the entire body first.
Don’t bounce. Bouncing when stretching increases the chance of small muscle tears, and over time can actually cause a build-up of scar tissues only to further contribute to muscle stiffness and soreness. Instead, stretches should be static and held for anywhere between 20-60 seconds and repeated a few times depending on how tight the muscle is.
You will feel tension during a stretch, it may be a little uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. If it is painful, stop and assess the pain, and ask your trainer for a modification.
Lastly, remember to breath! Calm breathing will help the muscles and the mind to relax.