In our quest to become strong, we often only think about making muscles stronger. That’s only part of the battle. Fitness requires mobility and flexibility. When I used to run, I would “stretch” after a run. This consisted of a couple seconds of hamstring and calf stretches.
A Lesson from Dance Class
Then I picked up dance. The first class was a rude awakening. My body refused to bend. I had ZERO flexibility. couldn’t get my leg up past 45 degrees and touching my toes seemed like it might never happen. The more classes I took, the more apparent the importance of flexibility in dance was.
Get Bendy: The Importance of Stretching
So I did my own research. What I discovered was that flexibility isn’t just for dancers. It is important for everyone’s overall health and fitness. What follows is a primer on stretching — its importance, types of stretching and some resources for getting bendy.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching is part of your fitness foundation, but it’s easy to dismiss. And you may not notice or ignore the ill effects of tightening muscles on your workouts. For me, these are the convincing reasons to add stretching to your routine:
- Increase muscle performance
- Decrease risk of injury
- Improve and maintain range of motion
- Boost muscle efficiency
Stretching keeps muscles flexible and healthy. I’m not talking Olympic gymnast flexible, just flexible enough to keep full range of motion in the joints. If you ignore stretching, your muscles can shorten and tighten. Those tight muscles are unable to extend all the way leaving you at risk for strains and muscle damage. Yikes. If you stretch regularly, you will keep your muscles long and flexible which will, in turn, mean exertion won’t cause tears or injury in your muscles.
Stretching Do’s and Don’ts
Stretching isn’t the few seconds of tugging at your legs that you do before you go for a run to wake your body up. And it certainly isn’t enough to finish a workout and stop after a quick standing calf and hamstring stretch.
While stretching is a good thing, there are ways it can go wrong. If you try and force a limb beyond its normal range of motion using momentum, also known as ballistic stretching, you are risking injury. Using your muscles as a spring and bouncing or jerking them past the range of motion and then back out of the stretch can lead to injury because it does not allow your muscles to relax in the stretched position. It might actually cause them to tighten and damage your back – in which case you will need to visit your local chiropractor.
You also don’t want to stretch cold muscles. Warm-ups often involve a gentle, short stretch to wake up muscles, but more than this can cause tears and injury, which is what you are trying to avoid.
5 Types of Stretching
There are a variety of types of stretching that are beneficial to your body. Here’s a round-up of five of the common forms of stretching for all points in your workout:
- Dynamic Stretching. This involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, the speed of movement, or both. This is very different from ballistic stretching (the intense bouncing stretching athletes do). Dynamic stretching is controlled movements that gently take you to the limits of your range of motion and does not force anything beyond its range of motion. Slow and controlled leg swings or gentle twists from side to side are examples of dynamic stretching. These are the types of stretches that are best used in your warm up because they gently build and warm up muscles.
- Active Stretching. An active stretch is one where you get into a position and then hold it with nothing other than the strength of other muscles. (Like lifting your leg to stretch your hamstring and holding it up with your glutes and quads). Many of the poses in yoga are active stretches and active stretching increases both strength and flexibility.
- Passive Stretching. You may have also heard this referred to as relaxed stretching and as static-passive stretching. A passive stretch is where you hold a stretch in a position by using another part of your body, a partner or an apparatus of some sort. Lifting your leg and then holding it in your hands or doing the splits are examples of passive stretches. Passive/relaxed stretching can help relieve muscle spasms after injury (as long as your doctor says it is OK). This kind of stretching is also great for your cool down and can help reduce soreness and muscle fatigue.
- Isometric Stretching. When you combine static stretching and isometric contractions (or tensing) of muscles you get what is called isometric stretching. It is more effective than either passive or active stretching alone. Isometric stretching can also help increase strength in the muscles that are tensed and can help reduce the pain associated with some stretching. An example would be a partner or barre holding your leg up high while you attempt to force it down. Isometric stretching can take a lot out of your muscles and each muscle group being stretched should only be stretched this way once a day.
- PNF Stretching. You might have heard about this method of stretching — it’s considered the fastest method for getting flexible. PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Technically, this isn’t a type of stretching. It is a technique that combines passive stretching and isometric stretching. Some types of PNF stretching are best left to professional athletes and dancers, but most can be used by those of us looking to make rapid improvements.
In Sum: When, How, & Why
|Type||What it is||When to do it||Benefit|
|Dynamic Stretching||Slow and controlled movements to limits of your range of motion||Before exercising||Warm up muscles|
|Active Stretching||Stretch/exercise target muscle with force of contraction of an opposing muscle||Standing postures in yoga||Increase strength and flexibility|
|Passive Stretching||Using a partner or object to hold a position||Cooling down||Reduce soreness, muscle fatigue, and spasms|
|Isometric Stretching||Static stretching combined with isometric contractions (or tensing) of muscles||Barre exercises||Increase strength and reduce pain|
|PNF Stretching||Combination of passive stretching and isometric stretching||Athletic training||Quickly increase flexibility and range of motion|
Add Stretching to Your Life
So, getting bendy sounds good to you? I thought it might. If you want to improve flexibility, some of the easiest things to do are to start taking a yoga or pilates class where flexibility is part of the program. Ballet and other dance classes also work on strength and flexibility and involve sections of the class dedicated to stretching.
If those aren’t your speed, the internet is full of both good and bad advice. You can find routines on YouTube (here are some of my favs) and if you look for ones from known fitness brands or trainers, you are likely to have a great intro to flexibility from the comfort of your home.
A Body for Now and the Future
Stretching comes in many flavors and can be adapted to any routine or fitness style, so you have no excuse for not ensuring your future mobility (like I did). What are your favorite flexibility exercises?
Mary Fran Wiley is a well known gluten-free and positive living blogger from Chicago where she writes Curiouser and Curiouser, maintains the Chronic Positivity Project, and has been featured in Allergic Living Magazine, Care2.com and Today.com.