Stretching 101: Benefits and Proper Techniques

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Do you stretch when you exercise? Stretching is a popular exercise regimen that may have many benefits. Your physical therapist can show you the best ways to stretch to help keep you moving with a full range of motion.

Stretching is the deliberate lengthening of muscles in order to increase muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. Stretching activities are an important part of any exercise or rehabilitation program.

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Fitness buffs and athletes incorporate stretching into their workouts and stretching is also an important component of injury rehabilitation. Stretching benefits folks of all ages and should be part of any exercise program.

The Benefits of Stretching

According to the American Council on Exercise, the benefits of stretching include:

  • Increased flexibility and joint range of motion: Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
  • Improved circulation: Stretching increases 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 tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
  • Enhanced performance: Maintaining the full range-of-motion through your joints keeps you in better balance and 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.

Most research shows that stretching does not actually reduce injury risk. People who stretch before athletic competition are just as likely to get injured as non-stretchers.

Proper Stretching Technique

It is essential to practice proper stretching techniques. Doing so will allow you to avoid any unnecessary injury. Tips to proper stretching technique include the following:

  • Warm up first: Stretching muscles when they're cold increases your risk of pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at a low intensity for five minutes.
  • Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds: It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches up to 30 seconds That can seem like a long time, so wear a watch or keep an eye on the clock to make sure you're holding your stretches long enough. You can repeat the stretches 2 or 3 times.
  • Don't bounce: Bouncing as you stretch can cause small tears (microtears) in the muscle, which leave scar tissue as the muscle heals. The scar tissue tightens the muscle even further, making you even less flexible—and more prone to pain.
  • Focus on a pain-free stretch: If you feel pain as you stretch, you've gone too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Relax and breathe freely: Don't hold your breath while you're stretching.
  • Stretch both sides: Make sure your joint range of motion is as equal as possible on each side of your body.
  • Stretch before and after activity: Light stretching after your warm-up followed by a more thorough stretching regimen after your workout is your best bet.

With your new-found knowledge of the proper techniques and benefits of stretching, it will be easy to incorporate this activity into your exercise/rehabilitation regimen. Here are a few good stretches to try:

  • Low Back StretchesThree quick and easy exercises to stretch the lower muscles of your back include the prone press up, the knees to chest, and the lumbar rotation stretch.
  • Morning StretchesStretching in the morning is a great way to "waken" up your muscles, and get them ready for the day.
  • Self-Assisted Neck StretchesStretches can be done with self-assistance to obtain a more efficient stretch. Here you can learn how to perform self-assisted stretches of the neck.

Be sure to check in with your physical therapist before starting this, or any other stretching program.

Who Should Avoid Stretching?

Although the benefits of stretching are many, it is not for everyone. Conditions in which stretching should be avoided include:

  • Acute Muscle Strains: People who have suffered an acute muscle strain should avoid placing further stress on the muscle through stretching activities. The injured muscle should be given time to rest. Stretching muscle fibers in the acute period can result in further injury.
  • Fractured Bones: After breaking a bone, the fracture site needs time to heal. Stretching muscles that surround this injured area can place stress on the bone and prevent it from healing as well as further displace the break. Stretching a joint that surrounds a broken bone should never be done until cleared by your physician.
  • Joint Sprains: When you sprain your joint, you overstretch the ligaments that help stabilize the bones that form the joint. For this reason, stretching early after a joint sprain should be avoided. As with fractures, these structures need time to heal and stretching too early in the injury will delay this process.

Stretching regularly can help your body and joints move more freely, allowing you to enjoy full functional mobility. Check in with your physical therapist to find out which stretches are best for you to do.

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Article Sources

  1. Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitationInt J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(1):109–119.

  2. American Council on Exercise. Top 10 Benefits of Stretching.

  3. Park HK, Jung MK, Park E, et al. The effect of warm-ups with stretching on the isokinetic moments of collegiate menJ Exerc Rehabil. 2018;14(1):78–82. Published 2018 Feb 26. doi:10.12965/jer.1835210.605

  4. American Heart Association. Warm Up, Cool Down.

  5. Merck Manual Professional Version. Overview of Sprains and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries.

  6. Merck Manual Professional Version. Overview of Fractures.

Additional Reading

  • American Journal of Sports Medicine, 1999, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 173-176

  • Page, P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. international Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2012: Feb 7(1); 109-119.