Stretching is quite a controversial subject in the exercise and sports world. In the near past, stretching was considered a keystone element in preventing injury. However, as more research is being done into the efficacy of certain accepted routines in sport and exercise, stretching has been shown not to be that effective on the prevention side.
Then why stretch?
Start by asking what we are trying to achieve by stretching? What is the goal of your stretching routine?
If you are trying to prevent injury, stretching, just for the sake of stretching, is not necessarily going to achieve that. There is more evidence that strength training helps with prevention.
If you are stretching because you are experiencing pain in a muscle or tendon and the stretch REDUCES the discomfort, then stretching is helpful. If it causes more pain, why are you stretching? It isn’t logical.
If you are trying to improve your joint range of movement (i.e. flexibility), now that is when stretching becomes a useful routine.
What are the benefits of improving your flexibility?
To improve movement.
Our bodies are designed for movement. If stiff muscles or joints are preventing you from participating in a specific sport or normal part of active daily life (e.g. getting down and up from the floor) then stretching or improving flexibility will benefit you. There is a goal behind the stretching routine.
Relaxation and pain reduction
Stretching or mobilising the muscles and joints has physiological benefits. It helps the tissues of the body glide and slide over each other, improving circulation to the area. It also releases endorphins (the so-called ‘feel good’ hormones) which helps us to relax and reduce pain in the body. A great reason to build a flexibility routine into your day.
Now that you have established the reason or goal behind why you want to stretch, here are a few principles to follow:
- Warm up first
Never, never, never stretch your muscles or joints when they are cold. It’s the same principle as taking a Fizzer out of the fridge and bending it in half, it will shatter. Rather slowly warm it up, moving it slowly and repeatedly into the range you want to take it.
- 10 second stretch is not enough
If you want to improve your range, don’t trick yourself into believing that a once off 10 second stretch is going to do anything. Stretch for 30 seconds and repeat the same stretch 5 times in a row, going slightly further (a few millimetres) with each repetition.
- Don’t think “No Pain, No Gain’
A stretch should NEVER be painful. Uncomfortable, yes! But never painful. You should feel a light stretching sensation in the muscle or joint you are trying to improve the range in. Searing, burning or sharp pain is a warning light. Stop.
A last thought on stretching
The focus should be on movement rather than on stretching alone. Stretching should never happen in isolation. If you are going to stretch or increase your flexibility, you should also focus on strengthening the movements in the new range.
Movement is key.
Written by Carmen de Lange.
Carmen is a physiotherapist who is passionate about movement. She spends her day helping her patients to restore movement, get active and return to their sports. She has a special interest in shoulder and neck pain and any form of tendinopathy. You can follow Carmen on Instagram @carmsphysio or if you would like to make an appointment for a hands-on session 031 566 5959.