Stretching 101: Benefits and Proper Technique

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Stretching is the deliberate lengthening of muscles in order to increase flexibility in the muscles and range of motion in the joints. Regular stretching can also help improve stability and balance. As a result, stretching activities are an important part of any exercise or rehabilitation program, no matter your age or fitness level.

The current guidance from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is that most people should perform flexibility exercises for each of the major muscle-tendon groups (shoulders, chest, neck, torso, lower back, hips, front of legs, back of legs, and ankles) at least two days a week. But if you stretch every day, you'll see more improvement in range of motion.

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Benefits of Stretching

Many people believe that stretching can help prevent injuries and post-workout soreness. Research doesn't support these claims, but that doesn't mean you should skip stretching. There are plenty of other benefits of stretching and flexibility training.

Increased Flexibility and Joint Range of Motion

Flexible muscles improve your everyday function as well as athletic performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes, or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring when you have a good range of motion in your joints. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it with regular stretching exercises.

Improved Circulation

Stretching increases circulation (blood flow) to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time if you've had any muscle injuries.

Better Posture

Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture. Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.

Stress Relief

Stretching relaxes the tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress. One study of office workers who participated in a 10-minute stretching session two days a week for 12 weeks found improvements in scores of mental health and vitality for participants.

Enhanced Performance

Maintaining the full range of motion through your joints keeps your body in better balance and helps your muscles work more efficiently. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.

Reduced Stiffness

Stretching right after exercise doesn't seem to prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness, but regular stretching in the days after a tough workout can reduce muscle stiffness. Joint stiffness, too, is alleviated by regular flexibility exercises to improve range of motion.

Proper Stretching Technique

Stretching doesn't need to take long. The ACSM says 10 minutes of stretching just two days a week is all you need to reap the rewards. To perform flexibility exercises safely and comfortably:

  • Warm up first. If you're doing a cardio or resistance training workout, save the stretching for after. Your flexibility exercises will be more effective when your muscles are warm. If you're not doing your stretches in combination with another workout, start with a short, full-body warm-up, like walking while gently pumping your arms.
  • Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat until you've stretched each muscle group for about 60 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely.
  • Don't bounce. Bouncing as you stretch can cause small tears in the muscle, which leave scar tissue as the muscle heals. The scar tissue tightens the muscle even further, making you less flexible and more prone to pain. (Dynamic stretching, in which you move slowly from one position to another, is different, and safe to do.)
  • Aim to feel a stretch, not pain. When you're stretching, you should be able to feel the sensation of the muscle elongating past where it normally is. This may feel strange or a little uncomfortable, and that's OK. But if it's painful, back off.
  • Relax and breathe. Don't hold your breath while you're stretching.
  • Stretch both sides. Make sure your joint range of motion is as balanced as possible on each side of your body.

When to Use Caution

If you're recovering from an injury, you may need to avoid some stretches. Check with a physical therapist for individualized advice if you have an acute muscle strain, a broken bone, or a sprained joint. These injuries need time to heal, and stretching the involved structures could delay this process.

A Word From Verywell

Stretching regularly can help your body and joints move more freely, allowing you to enjoy improved mobility and even quality of life. If you need help determining what stretches are best for you, ask your physician for a referral to a physical therapist (especially if you have an injury or medical condition). Or see if your gym offers a group stretching class or a session with a personal trainer.

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Article Sources
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