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Stretching 101

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Updated November 08, 2007

Stretching is the deliberate lengthening of muscles in order to increase muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. Stretching activities are an important part of any exercise or rehabilitation program. They help warm the body up prior to activity thus decreasing the risk of injury as well as muscle soreness.

The benefits of stretching are many and have been proven through various studies over time. Stretching benefits people of all ages, and is intended for the young as well as the elderly population.

The Benefits of Stretching

According to the Mayo Clinic, the top five benefits of stretching include:
  • Increased flexibility and joint range of motion:
    Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
  • Improved circulation:
    Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time if you've had any muscle injuries.
  • Better posture:
    Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture. Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.
  • Stress relief:
    Stretching relaxes tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
  • Enhanced coordination:
    Maintaining the full range-of-motion through your joints keeps you in better balance. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.

Proper Stretching Technique

It is essential to practice proper stretching techniques. Doing so will allow you to avoid any unnecessary injury. Tips to proper stretching technique include the following:

  • Warm up first
    Stretching muscles when they're cold increases your risk of pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five minutes.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. That can seem like a long time, so wear a watch or keep an eye on the clock to make sure you're holding your stretches long enough. For most of your muscle groups, if you hold the stretches for at least 30 seconds, you'll need to do each stretch only once.
  • Don't bounce
    Bouncing as you stretch can cause small tears (microtears) in the muscle, which leave scar tissue as the muscle heals. The scar tissue tightens the muscle even further, making you even less flexible — and more prone to pain.
  • Focus on a pain-free stretch
    If you feel pain as you stretch, you've gone too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Relax and breathe freely
  • Don't hold your breath while you're stretching
  • Stretch both sides
    Make sure your joint range of motion is as equal as possible on each side of your body
  • Stretch before and after activity
    Light stretching after your warm-up followed by a more thorough stretching regimen after your workout is your best bet
With your new-found knowledge of the proper techniques and benefits of stretching, it will be easy to incorporate this activity into your exercise/rehabilitation regimen. Here are a few good stretches to try:
  • Low Back Stretches
    Three quick and easy exercises to stretch the lower muscles of your back.
  • Morning Stretches
    Stretching in the morning is a great way to "waken" up your muscles, and get them ready for the day.
  • Self Assisted Neck Stretches
    Stretches can be done with self assistance to obtain a more efficient stretch. Here you can learn how to perform self assisted stretches of the neck.
Although the benefits of stretching are many, is not for everyone. Conditions in which stretching should be avoided include:
  • Acute Muscle Strains
    People who have suffered an acute muscle strain should avoid placing further stress on the muscle through stretching activities. The injured muscle should be given time to rest. Stretching muscle fibers in the acute period can result in further injury.
  • Fractured Bones
    After breaking a bone, the fracture site needs time to heal. Stretching muscles that surround this injured area can place stress on the bone and prevent it from healing as well as further displace the break. Stretching a joint that surrounds a broken bone should never be done until cleared by your physician.
  • Joint Sprains
    When you sprain your joint, you overstretch the ligaments that help stabilize the bones that form the joint. For this reason stretching early after a joint sprain should be avoided. As with fractures, these structures need time to heal and stretching too early in the injury will delay this process.
Sources:
American Journal of Sports Medicine, 1999, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 173-176
American Family Physician
Exercise: How to Get Started
Related Video
5 Effective Stretches for Walkers

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