Proper stretching is essential for improving your mobility and preventing injury, both during workouts and in everyday life. Without good mobility, you will struggle to get into correct alignment during exercises, limit your ability to produce strong muscle contractions, and potentially develop movement compensations that can lead to injuries. But did you know there is actually a right and a wrong way to stretch? Learning how to stretch the correct way is important so you actually get better instead of hurting yourself. So, let me give you the facts:
Wrong: Stretching to the point of pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is not right. Your muscles have tiny receptors in them that detect changes in length. When a muscle is being stretched, these little receptors send a message to the brain that tells it if the stretch is safe or not. If a muscle begins stretching too far, it sets off a chain reaction of events to protect you from injury, including contracting the muscle against the stretch. Thus, stretching to the point of pain totally counteracts the results you were hoping to get.
Right: Only stretch to the point you feel a pulling sensation, NOT pain. This will allow the muscle to stay relaxed as it is being stretched and produce a better end result. As your muscle begins to elongate and relax, you can then gradually increase how far you go. No pain, no gain definitely does not apply to stretching!
Wrong: Only holding a stretch for a few seconds. It takes a muscle about 15 seconds to begin relaxing and elongating, this means if you do not hold it for at least that long, the stretch will not actually produce a sufficient change in the muscle length.
Right: Hold your stretches for at least 20-30 seconds. This means you exceed the 15 second rule, plus a little more (especially for those speed counters out there). Most research suggests that holding prolonged stretches (1 minute or more) will produce similar outcomes in the long run, so no real need to hold any longer than that. Many people do not want to rest between each rep and get it all done at once, but I find that taking that little break in between each rep really helps. It allows your muscles to relax for a few seconds, so that you can stretch a little farther with each consecutive rep.
Wrong: Stretching on a cold muscle. Imagine taking a tootsie roll out of the freezer and trying to bend it. Not gonna happen! Let that tootsie roll warm up in the palm of your hands and it practically bends itself. Your muscles react pretty much the same way, making it very easy to pull a muscle if you stretch too far when you are cold.
Right: ALWAYS stretch after you are warm. Stretching can be done as part of your warm up prior to lifting, but should not be the first thing you do. Get your heart rate up and start to sweat a bit before you jump right into your stretching routine. It is always helpful to throw in more stretching during the middle of your workout, prior to lifting, and at the end of your work out as part of your cool down. This is when your muscles are their warmest, so take advantage of it! (You can read all about a proper warm up here)
Wrong: Not understanding the difference between dynamic, static and ballistic stretching. Knowing what each type of stretch is and how to perform it is important to preventing injury and maximizing your results. I go more in depth about the specifics in a previous blog post: Ballistic Stretching: Good or Bad?
Right: Perform dynamic movements as part of your warm up activities, and static stretches only once you are fully warm or as part of your cool down. Ballistic stretches are very helpful for preparing the body for fast, high intense type movements, which are common in both CrossFit and dance. These should only ever be done when you are sufficiently warmed up and with proper form. Not following these guidelines can easily result in injury.
Wrong: Not taking time to cool down and stretch at the end of your workout. Abruptly stopping your workout without giving your body a chance to gradually cool down and return to baseline increases your likelihood for delayed onset muscle soreness.
Right: Always set aside 5-10 minutes for a cool down each time you work out. You will noticeably feel more flexible at the end of your workout because your muscles are fully warmed up so you will achieve the best, longest lasting results from your efforts. Plus, you are facilitating movement of all that waste product that has built up in your system during your workout, meaning less soreness tomorrow!
Wrong: Holding your breath. Naturally when we hold our breath, we tense up. But to achieve elongation in our muscles, we must relax them first.
Right: Start with a few deep belly breathes. As you start to feel your body relax, move into the stretch. Continue breathing throughout the movement, and each time you exhale move a little farther into the stretch. You will start to feel your body relax into the stretch versus resist it. And as always never stretch into pain, only a pulling sensation.
I hope this helps you achieve more flexibility and less injuries. Happy stretching :-)