Stretching: What It’s Good For and How to Start

    Maybe you feel stiff when you get out of bed in the morning, or you’ve never been able to reach your toes without bending your knees. Whatever your reasons for wanting to stretch—and both  of those are good ones—the solution is a regular routine.

    Yeah, we know... It’d be great if you could just stretch once or twice a week, ad hoc, when you’re up for it, and be as bendy as a gymnast. But that’s not how it works. You have to work for flexibility.

    But there’s good news: Stretching actually feels good. So, unlike working for that last 10 pound weight loss, making room for a stretching routine shouldn’t be too difficult.

    TL;DR What You Need to Know

    • There are several different types of stretching, including static, dynamic, ballistic and myofascial release.
    • While there is conflicting scientific research out there, the general consensus among mainstream sources is that stretching can improve flexibility and may help prevent injury.
    • Static stretches for five minutes per muscle group and six days per week are the best for improving flexibility.
    • Stretching immediately before a workout (or race game, or other athletic showcase) could hurt performance.
    • Like eating well and working out regularly, incorporating a daily stretching routine takes work, but is well worth the effort.

    How Stretching Works

    We all do it—reach our hands over our heads and rise up on our tiptoes as we get out of bed or out of a car after a long road trip. And it feels good. Really good.

    Pair this feeling with a concentrated effort to be more flexible or improve your range-of-motion, and you have the makings of a beneficial stretching routine. One that feels good and actually does something positive for you.

    The acute or short-term effects of stretching are seen in your muscles, but it can change the structure of ligaments and tendons, too. It does this by changing water content in your tissues and even inducing stem cell growth and changes in the stretching tissues.

    Types of Stretching

    There are several different types of stretching. Here are four worth knowing about:

    Static stretching. This is generally the type of stretching we think of when we think about stretching to improve flexibility or help with aches and pains. It involves with extending a muscle or muscles and holding it in this extended period for several seconds.

    Active static stretches are when you really push into the stretch, adding force for greater intensity. Many yoga poses would fall into the active static category.

    Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching requires additional movement. It typically mimics the motion of a sport or exercise you plan on doing. A runner who does high knees or butt kicks, for example, is exaggerating the movements of running to get a stretch in the muscles involved.

    Ballistic stretching. When you think “ballistic,” think “bouncing,” as that’s exactly what you’re doing to get a ballistic stretch going. You’re bouncing your muscle into a stretched state beyond its normal range of motion.

    Bending over towards your toes and bouncing up and down to try and reach them is a decent example. Bouncing up and down in a lunge position is another. In essence, you’re trying to force your  body into a stretched state beyond what comes naturally.

    Myofascial release. Lastly, myofascial release is often overlooked as a type of stretching, but involves the use of a foam roller or lacrosse ball to relieve tension and improve range of motion. It targets a tissue known as fascia and the muscle beneath, and can resemble a brutal massage.

    The Science

    As with many topics, the science surrounding stretching is all over the map—it largely depends on where you look. The bottom line, however, is that stretching has redeeming qualities, but can also lead to injury or decreased performance.

    Much of the scientific evidence says stretching does not help relieve muscle soreness, but there is evidence it can desensitize you to the pain and discomfort of stretched muscles.

    After implementing a stretching routine, what once felt uncomfortable can feel like relief, according to the contortionist—yes, someone who is abnormally flexible—Sofie Dossi.

    And stretching when you get out of bed in the morning can feel food for other reasons.

    Stretching can reduce muscle and muscle-tendon stiffness, according to a 2017 study of 122 volunteers who used various types of stretching. That rusty feeling you have in your joints and muscles (moreso as you reach 30, 35, and beyond) can be aided by stretching.

    If you’re looking to get more bendy, static stretching is the best for improved range of motion or better flexibility, according to a meta analysis of 22 well-designed studies. There, researchers found at least five and up to 10 minutes total per session per muscle group is the sweet spot. And at least 6 days per week is the optimal frequency. In other words, you don’t have to stretch for hours on end—just a few minutes every day is good enough  to increase your flexibility.

    Unfortunately, it’s widely accepted that stretching can reduce your performance in the short term. You may run slightly slower or not jump as high after a strenuous stretching session.

    Still, it’s possible to reap the rewards of stretching while lessening the potential negative impact.

    Where to Start

    As we mentioned above, people incorporate stretching into their daily lives for a multitude of different reasons and, believe it or not, not all stretches were created equally. Where you start and what kind of stretches you incorporate into your daily routine all depend on what you're looking to get out of the process.

    For flexibility

    If you’re hoping to improve general flexibility and lessen muscle stiffness, a daily routine of static stretching is a good place to start. Remember, you get the most out of these stretches by spending five minutes on each muscle group. So, if you want to stretch your back, thighs, hips, neck and shoulders, for example, set aside 25 minutes each day.

    For your back, try a yoga cobra position or a seated spinal twist. For your thighs, stretch your quads by standing, bending one leg and grabbing your foot behind you. Your hamstrings can be stretched with a static toe touch.

    A good stretch for your hip flexors involves getting in a short lunge position with your back knee on the ground. Lean in slightly towards your front foot and feel the stretch at the front of your hip. You can stretch your shoulders and neck at the same time—grab your left wrist with your right hand and pull gently downwards. As you pull, lean your right ear towards your right shoulder and feel the stretch along the left side of your neck and shoulder.

    For Workout Preparation and Recovery

    Your stretching routine is not your warmup. Stretching with cold muscles could lead to injury. So always warm up before doing any stretching.

    Before your workout, try some dynamic stretching, mimicking the movements you’ll soon be undertaking, but with exaggerated motions.

    If you’re going to lift weights and train your upper body, for example, dynamic stretching could include shoulder pass-throughs. These involve using a broomstick or PVC pipe to stretch your arms and shoulders by grasping  it with both hands and passing it over your head, back and forth to the back and front of your body.

    A lower body stretch could be walking lunges or slow and controlled body weight squats—paying particular attention to the stretch you feel when you’re in the bottom of these movements.

    A good post workout or rest day routine is myofascial release with a foam roller. Don’t rush through this. Take the time to stop wherever you feel pain and let the weight of your body press the discomfort into the roller. Yes, it hurts, but your body will likely move easier after it’s done.

    Final Thoughts

    As with any new habit, making stretching part of your day will take some concentrated effort. But like eating well, exercising regularly, meditating or any other thing that’s good for us, the effort is worthwhile.

    One of the perks of stretching is it generally feels good, especially once you get used to it. So, look forward to the moments you can spend giving yourself some much-needed attention, knowing you’ll walk away with a body that moves easier and feels better overall.

    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.