It’s the one thing that we all know we should be doing – but very few of us actually do it.
Yet, if you’re neglecting this part of your warmup, you are seriously ribbing yourself of workout benefits.
In this article, we’ll take you through the scientific phenomenon of workout related stretching out so you can make an educated decision about how and when to incorporate stretches in your daily schedule.
Before We Get Started
- 1 Before We Get Started
- 2 Why Do We Stretch?
- 3 Types Of Stretches
- 4 Myths About Stretching
- 5 Why It’s Good For Exercise
- 5.1 Emotional Wellbeing
- 5.2 Why?
- 5.3 Stretching Increases Your Flexibility
- 5.4 Mobility Helps You Use Your Muscles’ Full Range Of Motion During Exercise
- 5.5 Strengthened Core Accommodates Flexibility
- 5.6 You Can Discover New Ranges Of Motion With More Stretching
- 5.7 Summary
- 6 Important Stretching Tips
- 7 Some Recommended Stretches
- 8 Conclusion
Before we get started, it’s important to remember that when it comes to the body, science is nowhere near grasping the full picture. Over the decades, science has been trying to zero down on the specific physical activities that generally aid wellbeing, but the individual differences you may have shouldn’t be ignored.
That being said, if there’s a specific philosophy of stretching that seems to work for you, by all means keep doing it your way, although caution is advised.
Why Do We Stretch?
Have you ever noticed that almost every vertebrate instinctively stretches in the morning, or after lying down for a long time?
Stretching helps realigns your muscles and also wakes up the brain, letting it know it’s about to shift activities to one that would need relatively more muscle input. Most vertebrates seem to need this kind of brain-to-body realignment.
Your brain actually has a map of your touch sensitivity and your muscles’ movement and strength capacity. It has millions of sensory neurons attached to all your skeletal muscles that are constantly getting information about the activity your body is doing. Stretching is an instinctive way of reminding the body about the range of movement it has, and how all its muscles are connected to each other.
Other than that, the phenomenon of stretching is still a debate among scientists. Just like yawning has a social and emotional element to it, stretching is seen to have a similar aspect, which would affect how we answer the question about why we do it, and what it does to our body.
Types Of Stretches
Static stretching is when you stretch a specific muscle, or group of muscles and holding still for a period of 30 seconds or more.
The ideal time for static stretches is after a workout in order to relax from your workout. Your muscles would also be properly warmed up for a good stretch.
Dynamic stretching is actually a mobility exercise as well. It’s when you perform motions that are similar to the exercise you’re going to be performing. E.g. swinging your arms in forward circles if you’re about to swim. This both stretches your muscles and makes your joints more mobile.
The ideal time to do this is right before your workout.
Active Isolated Stretching
Active isolated stretching is when you hold a stretch just slightly past what your muscle would usually allow, only for about 2 seconds. Ropes or elastic bands are usually used for this.
The ideal time for this is either after a workout. You can also do it before a workout (after a warm up) where you’re going to be more dependent on flexibility than strength.
Isometric stretching is when you resist the stretch as you’re doing it. This is also a mobility exercise, as it stretches you out while also strengthening your muscles and tendons. This is the safest and most effective way to achieve flexibility as well as mobility!
A similar type of stretch is PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation), involves constantly contracting and relaxing the muscle while stretching it- it’s also seen to be very effective and safe.
These can be done before exercises that don’t require your maximum strength and as warm-downs after intense workouts.
Ballistic stretching is when you use your body’s momentum to push your body part beyond its usual range of motion. E.g. Bouncing up and down while doing a split to push yourself further down.
This is only for people whose muscles are already conditioned to frequent workouts and stretches; otherwise it could result in injury.
Myths About Stretching
There are several things you may have heard about the benefits of stretching that actually aren’t true:
Stretching Reduces Muscle Soreness
Contrary to common belief, studies have shown that stretching before or after exercise may produce temporary subjective muscle relief, but it doesn’t actually show clinically important reductions in muscle soreness.
When combined with mobility exercises, it may make you feel looser and have a better workout, but it doesn’t significantly affect how sore you feel afterwards.
Stretching Before Workouts Prevents Injury
This really depends on the sport you play. For sports that don’t rely too much on flexibility, stretching by itself has been shown to have no effect on injury prevention, at least on the short run. Studies have even shown that flexibility without the appropriate strength and conditioning could cause your muscles not to know when to stop stretching, resulting in bad accidents.
On the long run, flexibility combined with muscle conditioning is what prevents injuries. You train your muscles to be able to take care of your body when it extends to various ranges of motion, so you’re less likely to get injured.
Stretching Before A Workout Enhances Performance
Stretching is actually mostly beneficial for workout performance on the long run, not right before a workout. Flexibility and mobility are what end up helping your workouts the most, and both are achieved after a relatively longer period of consistent stretching.
On the short run (e.g. right before a workout), it’s only beneficial for performance for certain types of workouts/sports. Static stretching before a workout is actually not ideal for workouts where you’re looking to use your maximum strength. Studies have shown that it reduces your strength by up to 13%. Distance runners were also shown to run 13 seconds slower on average than runners who didn’t stretch.
The reason why this happens is because your muscles realign and your brain neurologically “loses track” of your muscles and has to take time to readapt. This compromises the strength you’ll have for your workout.
For this reason, it’s best not to do static stretching for too long before workouts that require your full strength, such as:
- Strength and conditioning workouts
If you do decide to do static stretches before workouts, make sure you warm up for a good 20-30 minutes afterwards to give your brain time to readapt.
Why It’s Good For Exercise
There are quite a few ways stretching can help you with exercise:
One aspect of stretching that shouldn’t be ignored is its effect on emotional wellbeing. In this day and age, it’s easy to get roped into the idea that exercising is all about maximum intensity and pushing past your boundaries. However, every experienced athlete would tell you that learning how to rest both emotionally and physically is important for reaching your full potential.
Regularly taking part in a stretching session before and/or after your workout is a good way to relax your muscles, meditate and remind yourself that you don’t have to go hard all the time. Several athletes who had emotional struggles dealing with the stress of being a professional in the field have mentioned that finding the time to stretch has helped them both emotionally and physically.
This isn’t just limited to athletes, people in generally high-demanding positions like politicians, lawyers and doctors have also talked about the benefits of stretching for their overall wellbeing, especially when combined with “mindfulness” exercises.
Research shows that there’s a factual basis to why we feel so good after stretching:
It Increases Blood Flow To “Dormant Muscles”
Stretching releases endorphins and increases blood flow to parts of your muscles that aren’t used to being stretched. This causes you to feel looser after a stretch, because blood has reached the silent corners of your body that are now relatively “awake”. This feeling also tends to give people the uplifting feeling that their body is a lot more capable than they thought- a confidence also associated with wellbeing.
It Helps Release Your Emotions
Psychologists also point out the huge connection between our muscles, anxiety and emotional trauma. One way to put it is that we actually store “emotional trauma” in our muscles. When we go through any type of emotional stress, we tense up some parts of our bodies, and we usually don’t notice that we’re doing it.
One simple example is grinding our teeth when we’re anxious. Our mind begins to associate the tension we feel in our jaw with that emotion, so massaging your jaw can help you release them.
Historically several traditional medicine fields have tried to map out the muscles in the body that are generally associated with emotional states.
Stretching can therefore help you release emotional tension just as much as actual physical tension.
It’s even a technique used in therapy to help patients with anxiety: identify which muscles tense up when they feel a certain way. They’re then asked to contract and relax those muscles whenever they feel overwhelmed with this emotion.
It Gives You “Deeper” Workouts
To understand how stretching and flexibility can help our workouts, we first have to understand the relationship between flexibility, mobility and strength & stability. The combination of all three is what ends up helping our workouts, not just flexibility by itself.
Flexibility is only referring to the length your muscles reach at its maximum stretch. Mobility is your joints’ ability to actively move and utilize the muscles’ flexibility. This depends on muscle temperature and the strength and conditioning of the surrounding muscles.
Here’s a simple way to explain how stretching aids your workouts on the long run:
- Stretching increases your flexibility
- Mobility (dynamic and isometric stretches) helps you use your muscles’ full range of motion during exercise.
- Strengthened core accommodates flexibility
- Your stable core can now allow you to discover new ranges of flexibility with more stretching
Stretching Increases Your Flexibility
All of the stretches mentioned above end up helping you become more flexible, and the science on that is pretty solid.
For optimal short-term flexibility, research has shown that:
- 15-30 seconds of static stretching shows as much muscle lengthening as longer stretches (and more than shorter stretches).
- Repetitive rapid ballistic stretches for 30 seconds showed similar improvements.
For long-term flexibility, a combination of all types of stretches, along with appropriate exercise shows the best results.
Make sure you give yourself the liberty to feel out which stretches and exercises work best for you.
Mobility Helps You Use Your Muscles’ Full Range Of Motion During Exercise
Mobility exercises are basically ones that warm up your muscles and give them the tools to be able to use their full flexibility. E.g. high-knee jumps warm up your hamstrings and pelvic muscles so you can have access to their flexibility as you run.
When you can use your full range during exercise, your exercises become “deeper.” For example, if your hamstrings are loose, you can squat deeper and workout more of your muscles than if you were stiff.
Strengthened Core Accommodates Flexibility
Mobility then basically allows you to create core strength surrounding your newfound flexibility. This also means that you can stay flexible for a longer period of time, because your entire body’s tendons, ligaments and other muscles have adapted to the flexibility. If they hadn’t, odds are they would’ve eventually made your flexible muscle shift back to its inflexible state.
As mentioned before, this step is crucial for injury prevention. Flexibility without the needed strength from your tendons, ligaments and other muscles, can lead to bad accidents. Strength without flexibility can also lead to soft tissue tears and sprains.
You Can Discover New Ranges Of Motion With More Stretching
Now that your body has properly shifted its strength to accommodate your flexibility, it’s now safe for you to explore even wider ranges of motion without risking injury! This means you can push your body harder at the gym after correctly stretching, we have reviewed one of the leading testosterone boosting supplements on the market which has helped many people get into shape.
For a dynamic example of how this all works, think of a pole dancer:
- When a pole dancer has average flexibility, they’re using a specific set of muscles every time, because their range of motion isn’t that big, and their weight is more localized.
- When they become more flexible, e.g. can go further into a split, they can now spread their weight across more of their body, and various muscles are now being activated, as opposed to just a few.
- Now that their muscles are conditioned to support their splits, it now feels effortless and they can now also try bending their backs, or dipping even further into their splits.
When your body comfortably reaches a widened flexibility (with accommodated strength), you can:
- Begin to exercise muscles you usually don’t exercise (e.g. some parts of the hamstring during a deep squat)
- Your brain realizes how interconnected your muscles are (e.g. you can spread your legs, and bend your back, and spin around). This recognition of your muscles’ interconnectivity generally increases performance in sports like martial arts, synchronized swimming, gymnastics, etc.
Important Stretching Tips
Here are some important things to take into account while planning a stretching routine:
1) Warm Up Before You Stretch
A muscle is kind of like an elastic band. If it’s cold, it’s less likely to stretch to its fullest extent, and you’re more likely to injure yourself. When your muscle is warmed up it can stretch a lot more easily.
Do some kind of movement for about a minute before stretching.
2) Be Aware Of Your Existing Flexibility
Even if you’ve never stretched before, your body is going to be flexible in some areas and tense in others. When we walk, sit, stand, sleep, etc. our body’s flexibility and strength adjust accordingly. It also depends on our general posture, which is partly genetic.
For example, people with what’s called “anterior pelvic tilts,” naturally push their bottoms backwards. This means their hamstrings are already stretched out more than people with “posterior pelvic tilts,” and their hip flexors will need more stretching.
Figure out your own unique flexibility to find out your strengths and weaknesses.
3) Start With Major Muscle Groups.
Major muscle groups are like the “backbone” to the rest of the muscles you may also want to stretch, so it may be best to start with those.
These include your hips, thighs, calves, back, abs, neck and shoulders. Once you get those loose, you’ll find it easier to focus on other peripheral muscle groups like your feet.
4) Remember Your Body Is All Connected
Our entire body is made up of “muscle pairs.” That means that when one of those muscles is contracted, the other will be stretched. Therefore, if you have particularly tense quads, your hamstrings will be pretty flexible. Contracting your hamstrings could help relieve quad tension.
Here’s a list of opposing muscle groups to be aware of:
|Trapezius + Rhomboids|
(“traps” and neck muscles)
(back muscles parallel to spine)
(ab/hip flexor muscles)
(muscle near shin bone)
Muscles are also connected to various different muscles too! For example, a reason why your hamstrings could be really stiff is if your calves are tense as well. Your calves could be stiff because your feet are sore.
People with bunions in their feet tend to have particularly tense calves, and therefore stiff hamstrings as well!
Therefore, experiment with other connected muscles if one muscle group seems not to budge.
5) Don’t Aim For Pain
Again, it can be easy to think that physical mastery is about striving for pain and intensity, but that’s not a very sustainable method of reaching your body’s full potential.
If you stretch your muscles just a little bit everyday, you avoid injury, and you avoid burning yourself out. When you make your stretches enjoyable, you’re more likely to keep doing them and get the results you want.
6) Design Your Stretches Based On Your Sport
You should align your stretches along with the exercise you’re used to doing. That way, you become flexible in the areas that are really needed for your sport, and you’re strengthening the right muscles to maintain your flexibility.
For example, if you’re a swimmer, you should focus on stretching the parts in your arms that most need flexibility while swimming in order to see improvements in your performance.
Having flexible arms will obviously be more useful for a swimmer than a cyclist.
7) Make It Consistent
Stretching shows you the best results when you do it consistently. As shown above, we see no significant improvements when we stretch for longer than 15-30 seconds. But we would definitely see improvements if we stretch for short amounts of time consistently.
8) Play Around During Your Stretches!
Especially with static stretches, you don’t want to get your muscles used to only being able to stretch in one position. Swing around and play during your stretches to make sure you’re getting dynamic flexibility.
Some Recommended Stretches
Here are some stretches that helped with certain sport performance!
Ballistic Stretches + Basketball Activity Helps Athletes Jump Higher
If you’re looking to improve your jumps in basketball, this study showed that ballistic stretches, when compared to other kinds of stretches was the only type that significantly improved jump height in basketball players.
Static Stretching (Following Cycling Session) Improves Leg Power In Cyclists
For cyclists wondering how they should stretch for better performance, this study showed that static stretching after a cycling session actually ended up improving leg power!
It’s time to stop taking stretching for granted! Get serious about your pre and post workout stretching and you’ll be rewarded with greater range of motion, more endurance and power and reduced post workout soreness.