Stretching is not one of my favorite things to do.
I put it just above watching paint dry. However, it is important. Especially when it comes to keeping your body healthy and injury-free.
Today’s post is all about the art of stretching. The ins, outs, and in-betweens about how you can make the most out of your stretch time. Most importantly this post covers how to make it a little more fun and enjoyable.
WHY YOU GET TIGHT
When you think about stretching I’m almost certain you think about loosening up tight muscles. Tight muscles are caused primarily by three things.
- During exercise/physical activity
- After exercise
- Inactivity like sitting at a desk
Over the course of a day, your muscles contract and relax thousands of times. They do this when you walk up the stairs, pick up a heavy box, or play hopscotch with the neighbor’s kids.
This contraction and relaxation process of the muscles is stronger when you do resistance training (with weights or your own bodyweight). Weight training in particular requires that your muscles contract very rapidly and for extended periods of time.
After workouts, your muscles can stay contracted for 24 to 72 hours. This is the sore feeling you get, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Soreness like this is usually caused by eccentric contractions of the muscles during exercise. An example of an eccentric contraction is when you lower the barbell to your chest during a bench press when you lower your body weight during a pull-up, or when you lower yourself while doing a squat.
The slower you do an eccentric contraction (taking 5 seconds to lower the barbell to your chest during a bench press for example) the greater the stress you are placing that muscle under. This will usually result in more tightness or soreness after a workout.
At your desk
If you have a desk job your muscles will tighten up during the day because of a lack of inactivity. Sitting in a chair causes the hip flexors to contract, the muscles in your chest and shoulders to shorten up as you reach for your keypad, and the back of your neck to get tight as your head leans forward while typing and reading online.
When sitting at a desk like the example above, your hip flexors, chest, and shoulders contract while your glutes, lower back, and upper back relax. This causes muscular imbalances and poor posture.
Stretching won’t help to prevent soreness but can help to loosen up some of those tight muscles. Soreness is caused by tiny micro-tears to a muscle. Stretching will not help to improve these tears.
Stretching will only temporarily relieve pain and discomfort but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. A certain amount of flexibility is needed to stay injury-free, to help with mobility, and strength training to help in preventing muscular imbalances.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF STRETCHING
Just like there are a million ways to skin a cat there are a million ways to stretch. Ok, not a MILLION but there are six of them used most often.
I covered static stretching and dynamic stretching in this post about how to warm up so I won’t dive into them to in-depth but a review is definitely necessary.
- When: During the day, especially if you work at a desk or after exercise.
- How: 2 to 3 sets of each stretch. Holding each stretching position for 10 to 90 seconds
- Alternative example: Yoga classes utilize a lot of static stretching to help with balance, coordination, and flexibility. (side note: LOVE yoga)
Static stretching is holding a position that stretches a muscle or group of muscles for roughly 10 to 90 seconds. An example might be pulling your heel behind you and into your butt while standing as a way to stretch the quadricep.
Static stretching can be done actively or passively. Active static stretching is when you add force to a stretch to increase the intensity.
Passive static stretching is adding extra force with the help of a partner, band, or another piece of equipment.
Static stretching should not be done before workouts as it can lead to a decrease in strength and explosive ability. This occurs because the sensitivity of tension receptors in the muscles is decreased.
When doing static stretches proper breathing is important for maximizing the effectiveness of the stretch. You’ll want to inhale as you right before going into the stretch and exhale slowly as you do the stretch. Slow your exhale down enough so that you will be done exhaling just as you finish the stretch (take 10-90 seconds to exhale if you are holding the stretch for that long).
To get deeper into your static stretches try taking a deep breath while still holding the stretch. As you begin to exhale try to get deeper into it. You’ll notice that the body will relax more and you will most likely be able to with ease.
In this video, I give a demonstration of some static stretching. Pay attention to the breathing that I just described above.
Here are a few other stretching examples from Exrx that are great for those of you that spend a lot of time at a desk.
- Hip Flexor
- Upper trap
- Lat stretch
- Broomstick Shoulder stretch
- Another Shoulder stretch
- Overhead Shoulder stretch
When static stretching treats it just like a workout. For each muscle group that you’re stretching, you’ll want to do 2-3 sets with 10 to 90-second holds.
- When: Before exercise as a warm-up or during the day as a way to help improve mobility. Great for those that work a desk job.
- How: 1 to 2 sets of a group of exercises like this. Usually done in reps ( for example 5 to 20 or length 100 meters) Usually will take 5 to 10 minutes.
- Alternative example: Movnat, Animal flow, Martial arts, T’ai Chi, and Qi Gong
Dynamic stretching will help with flexibility but even more so with your mobility by loosening up muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Tony Gentilcore does a great job explaining the differences between flexibility and mobility in this article.
To sum it up:
- Flexibility is the length of a muscle
- Mobility is how a joint moves
Our bodies are plastic and if one area isn’t used another area is affected. The saying is true, “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”
Using working at a desk example. Sitting most of your day the muscles in your chest and shoulders will become tight while their opposing muscles in the upper back will become loose.
This causes the hunch back of Notre Dame to look where your shoulders roll forward, the chest collapses in, and the upper back protrudes up while your neck tilts forward.
Dynamic stretching actively moves a joint through a range of motion. It helps to raise body temperature, wake up the nervous system, increase oxygen uptake and blood flow, coordination, and visualization of proper movement and technique before exercising.
Dynamic stretching involves momentum and continuous movement through exercises like:
OTHER STRETCHING TECHNIQUES
There are a few other forms of stretching that I want to touch on but not as in-depth.
It is usually done as a way to trigger the stretch reflex before sports or other athletic events/movements. It is done by lightly bouncing while in the stretched position. Ballistic stretching can increase the risk of injury if done incorrectly by someone who is not already well-conditioned.
Ballistic stretching pushes the body beyond its normal range of motion and can be a little uncomfortable.
ACTIVE ISOLATED STRETCHING
These stretches are only held for short periods of time. Usually between 2 and 5 seconds. Once the stretch is released you go right back into it for another 2 to 5 seconds except for this time you’ll want to get a little deeper into the stretch.
MYOFASCIAL RELEASE AND FOAM ROLLING
You can read all about foam rolling in this post, as well as how to build your own foam roller. Foam rolling is a way to remove tension and connective tissue in the body known as fascia.
Foam rolling is done similarly to the way you would knead the dough before baking. You start proximal and work distally. Proximal means are closer to where the body part is attached to the body and distal means farther away.
You would begin by using long slow strokes for 30 to 60 seconds. Once you have found a trigger point, sore spot, or tight spot you will stop and apply pressure. Foam rolling can be done before and after exercise.
On a personal note, I like to do it on rest and recovery days.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching:
Involves a partner helping you to contract and relax the agonist and antagonist muscles that we talked about early (ex: quad and hamstring).
PNF stretching involves a 10 to 20-second pushing phase followed by and 10 to 20-second relaxing phase repeated for 2 to 3 sets. PNF stretching should only be done after training so as not to reduce strength and performance.
HOW TO START STRETCHING FOR BEGINNERS
Pick one stretch and feel it out. Play around in the stretch and take note of how it feels as you move your body in different positions.
Try not to get wrapped up in doing it right or if you’re feeling it in the correct place. When starting anything, building a routine around it is the most important step. Use this as an opportunity to explore your body.
Choose one of the stretches below and practice it each day this week for at least a minute.
WHAT STRETCHES SHOULD I DO EVERY DAY?
There isn’t a hard and fast rule for what stretches you should do every day. This will depend on you, your goals, and how your body moves.
But I’ve put together two different stretching flows that you can follow along with. Both can be done in a few minutes per day.
Stretching flow #1
Stretching flow #2
IS IT BETTER TO STRETCH BEFORE OR AFTER A WORKOUT?
There is some evidence that regular static stretching outside of exercise may increase power and speed, and reduce injury. (1) (2) But overall, the best time to stretch is when your muscles are warm and pliable. This could be during a yoga or pilates class, just after exercising, or walk.
HOW MANY MINUTES PER DAY SHOULD YOU STRETCH? HOW LONG SHOULD I HOLD A STRETCH?
According to one study, a 30-second duration is an effective amount of time to hold a stretch to improve flexibility and range of motion. No increase in flexibility was found when held for up to 60 seconds.
With that said, take studies like this as a starting point. The best thing to do is test yourself, measure your progress, and adjust how often you stretch, how long you stretch, and how long you hold a stretch. See if the changes improve your personal flexibility and range of motion.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I NEVER STRETCH?
Regular stretching keeps your muscles flexible, strong, and maybe help to reduce injury by helping to maintain range of motion in the joint. Without it, your muscles become short and tight. However, you can also improve flexibility without regular stretching, simply by moving through complete ranges of motion in your exercises.
HOW SHOULD A STRETCH FEEL?
When you’re stretching you should feel slight discomfort but not excruciating pain. If you worked out the day before and are experiencing some soreness dynamic stretching can help to loosen you up but will be a bit uncomfortable at first.
Static stretching may be a bit uncomfortable but work just to the point of slight discomfort for your first set. Focus on the breathing techniques I outlined earlier and on your next set try to push just a bit further in that stretch.
If you’re not very flexible or have poor mobility you might experience a bit more discomfort than most. Start small by scheduling in 2 to 5 minutes of stretch time to start your day. You can also perform a light stretching routine as a way to improve flexibility and break up your workday.
More on that in a few.
How long does it take to get flexible?
It takes consistency to achieve results. The more consistent you are with your stretching routine the more likely you are to see results quicker.
Like strength training, stretching needs you to apply progressive overload. To get more flexible you need to try and push a little further/deeper into your stretches. This teaches your body that it is safe. One way to do this is to get deeper into each stretch with every exhale.
CAN YOU STRETCH TOO MUCH? OR BECOME TOO FLEXIBLE?
Some Cirque Du Soleil performers will NEED extreme ranges of motion and flexibility in order to effectively do their job.
Other athletes and regular Joe’s will need a certain amount of “tightness” as a way to protect themselves against injuries. Pushing connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) beyond their limits can cause them to become too loose. This excessive flexibility can cause weak stabilizing muscles around bigger joints and may lead to injury. The hip (especially in women) is at high risk for this.
Tendons and ligaments help to hold stuff together in the body.
- Ligaments: bone to bone
- Tendons: Muscle to bone
Loose ligaments will mean that you are naturally flexible. This might mean that you don’t need to stretch as much as someone else. Provided you don’t have a dramatic change in your lifestyle that might lead to the tightening up (i.e.: job on your feet to a job at a desk).
HOW TO LOOSEN UP AT YOUR DESK
This article from my friends over at Greatest shows a few great ways to stretch if you sit at a desk for your job.
You’ll want to focus on stretching and creating more mobility in the following areas:
- Hip flexors
- Lower back/lats
Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and do 3 sets of each.
Focus on the breathing that was outlined earlier by inhaling right before going into the stretch and exhaling as you begin the stretch. Slowly breathing out for the entire duration of the stretch.
I also recommend using the dynamic warm-up/stretch in this video that I linked to earlier.
Try doing these stretches or the dynamic movements every 60 to 90 minutes as a way to break up your workday.
I HATE STRETCHING. IT’S SO BORING.
Hey, I’m right there with ya!
There are a couple of strategies that I’ve used to help me be more consistent when it comes to stretching.
1. Do it first thing in the morning: Holding static stretches or doing the dynamic warm-up only takes up 5 minutes of my day. I’ve found that they both help to wake me up and make my body feel alive and ready to tackle the day
2. Do it randomly during the day: I may even just stretch one body part at a random part of the day. I’ve been known to do it mid-conversation, in a Starbucks, or waiting at the urinal at a sporting event…. TMI?? Yes…. I apologize.
3. Stretch doing sh*t you like: Yoga, Tai’Chi, Qi Chong, Martial arts, and Pilates are all great ways to improve flexibility and mobility. Way more fun and social than just doing it on your own. Plus they feel like a workout 🙂
5. Recruit: Don’t do it alone. If you like to gossip, chat, or be social ask a friend to stretch with you.
6. Watching TV: Football season is upon us. Hallelujah! While watching a game I’ll stretch or during the commercials. You can also do this while Netflixing, Hulu-ing, or Amazon priming.
7. Start small. Super small: Consistency is hard. If you’re having a hard time building the stretching habit then just commit at first to stretching one muscle group for one minute every day. Build upon that by increasing your time, muscle groups, etc…
OTHER THINGS TO THINK ABOUT FOR MORE FLEXIBILITY
You can actually help improve flexibility and mobility without actually stretching.
Pay attention to your posture during the day. Are you slouching and slumped over at your desk, while driving, or chillaxing? A standing desk might be a great idea! Or just sit up straight and pull those shoulders back a little bit.
When weight training uses proper form and a full range of motion and thinks about using more dumbbells during your workouts. The full range of motion will make sure that your muscles are not staying contracted in a shorter ROM than normal. When lower the dumbbells on a chest press you should feel a slight stretch in the chest and shoulder. At the bottom part of a pull up the muscles in your back and biceps should be totally extended and relaxed.
NO T-REX ARMS during pull-ups or I will fight you. It’s my pet peeve.
When standing and while exercising squeeze your glutes (butt cheeks together) and flex your abs. This will keep your core tight and body in proper alignment.
Weight train! A lot of muscular imbalances and lack of flexibility are actually due to weakness in a specific muscle with its counterpart being too strong. For example, if you work at a computer a lot the back of your neck will become very strong as it stays contracted most of the day as it leaning forward. The front of the neck will become weak as it stays relaxed.
Wow! That was a lot of info about stretching. If any of this is confusing or you need clarification please comment below or reach out to me via email.
TAKE ACTION CHALLENGE USING THIS ARTICLE
- Grab a pen and index card. Write down one area of the body you would like to improve flexibility.
- Write down a precise time and for how long (minimum 1 minute) you will be doing that stretch.
- Do it every single day this week. If you are able to do it ad more time or another stretch.
Focused Flexibility is a completely customizable program for assessing and improving your effective range of motion for greater ease and freedom of movement.
- Reduce Pain and Tightness at Work
- Finally, Achieve Full Splits & Bridges
- Increase Static & Dynamic Ranges of Motion
- Be More Confident in Your Body’s Ability to Perform