Stretching the muscles is a basic step to improving flexibility and reducing the risk of injury.
Although studies about the benefits of stretching are mixed, stretching may help you improve your range of motion, which in turn may improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk for musculoskeletal injury. Stretching after exercise appears to be more helpful for preventing injury.
Benefits of Stretching
Studies about the benefits of stretching have had mixed results. Some show that stretching helps, while others show that stretching has little if any benefit.
The main benefits of stretching are thought to be:
- Improving flexibility
- Improving performance level
- Decreasing the risk of activity-based injuries
- Increasing blood flow to targeted muscle groups
The main controversies of stretching are thought to be:
- Over-stretching or stretching to a point where pain is felt may be inappropriate and harmful
- Stretching can be dangerous when performed incorrectly causing permanent damage to the nerves, tendons, ligaments and muscle fiber
- Stretching has not been empirically shown to prevent or reduce delayed onset muscle soreness at the result of exercise
A person’s flexibility tends to be inherited, with women tending to be more flexible than men. In addition, certain sports tend to lead to greater or lesser flexibility. For instance, long distance runners tend to have less flexibility in certain muscle groups than sprinters.
A person’s pre-existing flexibility can be improved with sufficient regular stretching and exercises.
One of the first noticeable benefits of a stretching program is an increased tolerance of a stretch. The same stretches will lead to less discomfort. Improving flexibility will allow for an increase in the range of motion of the joints.
For long-term improvements in flexibility, stretching should be performed at least every other day, for a minimum of six-weeks. If the stretching regimen is not maintained, the gains in flexibility will soon start to reverse.
Approaches to Stretching
There are many approaches to stretching, but typically it involves some type of active and non-active (static) motion.
Static stretches are thought to be safer because they involve a slow passive stretch to the targeted muscle, such as a straight leg raise for the hamstrings. The muscle is held in a stretched position for 10–60 seconds and is repeated two-to-six times.
Active stretches are movements intended to be repeated and release the targeted muscle group without a hold period, such as standing with the knees straight, feet spread apart, and alternately touching the right foot with the left hand and the left foot with the right hand. 5-10 repetitions for up to 60 seconds are typical. Injury risk may increase with active stretching if the movements are too fast.
Regardless of the type of stretching performed, it is essential that the activity sufficiently stretch the target muscle.
However, it is important to avoid overstressing the target area which can itself lead to injury. The general recommendation is to stretch to the point of mild discomfort, but not to the point of pain. Also, the activity should aim at stretching the muscle, not the joint. Stretches that lead to joint pain should be avoided.
Flexibility and Age
Flexibility decreases with age, leading to complaints of increased stiffness when participating in exercise activities. This is a results of the muscles getting shorter and a loss of strength.
Although flexibility exercises are helpful for improving mobility, maintaining muscle strength through stretching is also important for the elderly.
Stretching and Flexibility Exercises
Be sure to warm up before doing any of these stretches. Good examples of warm up activities are slowly running in place or walking briskly for a few minutes.
Never bounce a stretch. Bouncing can cause muscle strains and other injuries.
Because stretching may aggravate an existing injury, consult your physician or physical therapist about an appropriate flexibility program.