There are over 600 muscles in the human body and all of us, athletes and non-athletes alike, need to stretch. The benefits of stretching range from protecting our mobility, reducing risk of injury to improving performance in physical activity. To enjoy the benefits of stretching, it needs to be executed properly and performed daily.
Why is stretching so important?
To maintain a range of motion in our joints it’s important to have flexibility and strength in our muscles. Stretching is one of the best ways to obtain this. Without regular stretching, we may risk our muscles becoming tight and shortening. Additionally, this poses a risk for joint pain, muscle strain and muscle damage.
Without proper care of our bodies, through stretching exercises, our muscles may weaken and have a reduced capacity to extend fully when needed. For example, if you have a desk job or spend a lot of time sitting in a chair all day, it may result in tight hamstrings. This may then make it more difficult to extend your legs or fully straighten your knee, which may put a constraint on essential body mobility such as walking.
Similarly, in other scenarios involving more strenuous activity like physical exercise or sports, tight muscles may be more prone to muscle damage as they suddenly become stretched. Additionally, muscles that are tight or injured lose the ability to support your joints, which may lead to joint pain or injury.
Therefore, regular stretching helps to keep your body mobile by keeping your muscles long, lean and flexible. Ideally, daily. However, to begin developing this habit, it might be easier to start a few times a week on the muscles in the areas critical for mobility, such as your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and pelvis.
Benefits of Stretching
1. Improves flexibility
Regular stretching helps to improve flexibility which is essential for overall health. Improved flexibility allows you to perform daily activities with more ease and also may help delay the reduced mobility that will naturally come with age.
2. Increase range of motion
Regular stretching helps to improve mobility and give you more freedom of movement.
3. Improve performance in physical activity
When executed properly, dynamic stretching before physical activity may help improve your athletic performance. There are more and more studies promoting dynamic stretching before any physical activity, whether you’re doing a home workout or punching bags or pumping iron in the gym, priming your body before any activity may elevate your performance.
4. Boost blood flow
Performing daily stretches improves blood circulation and blood flow to your muscles. This reduces muscle soreness and shortens muscle recovery time and reduces the risk of muscle injury.
5. Stress relief
In response to stressful physical or emotional situations, our bodies have a natural tendency to tense up. You may be holding your stress in particular areas of your body such as your neck and shoulders. Focusing on stretching and releasing the tension on these muscles may promote stress relief and help to calm your nervous system.
Proper Execution and Active Warm-ups
We’ve all heard the advice to warm up and stretch before any physical activity. We all know to do it, but mounting studies are showing that stretching before your workout make your muscles more prone to injury! This is because when your muscles are ‘cold’, your muscle fibres aren’t prepared for activity.
Therefore it’s recommended to warm up your body before stretching before a workout. Active warm-ups include agility drills such as jogging, shuttle runs and low-impact, movement-based actions.
Active warm-up and dynamic stretching is the winning combination that has the effect of boosting blood flow, activating your muscles which may enhance strength, power, flexibility and range of motion.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
Static stretching is probably the kind of stretches you’ve learnt to do in school during physical education class. Think the classic forward bend stretch, either seated or standing, where you try to touch your toes. It involves holding a stretch for some time and thus gradually elongating the targeted muscle.
These stretches aren’t without benefits, it’s great to release tension and promote recovery after physical activity. However, if performed before exercise, it may hamper your performance. This is because it relaxes your muscles, which may drain your strength and reduce the blood flow.
Dynamic stretching is part of the larger category of active warm-ups. This involves a more movement-based stretching. Think bodyweight squats, jumping jacks and twisted lunges. This type of preparatory activity is highly recommended before a workout.
Types of Quick Warm-Up Stretches
While a full-scale sport-specific warm-up is always preferred, below are a few dynamic stretches that encompass a variety of movements that may help to prime your muscles for any exercise endeavour.
Shoulder Circles– stand tall with arms by your sides, gently and slowly roll your shoulders forwards, upwards, backwards and downwards. Do this for about 30 seconds and repeat in the opposite direction.
Leg Swings– stand tall with arms out to your sides or holding something stable for balance, shift your weight to your right leg and raise your left leg and swing it back and forth. Do this for about 30 seconds and repeat on the other leg.
Lunges– stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips. Keep your back straight and chest proud, take a step forward with your right foot and lower your body until your knee is at a 90-degree angle, step your left foot to meet your right foot. Either do 30 seconds on each leg or continue for a minute with alternating legs.
It’s incredibly beneficial to prime your muscles for action before you use them. The benefits of enhancing athletic performance and promoting muscle recovery is crucial for overall health since our bodies are made of muscles.
Active warm-up and dynamic stretching is the optimum combination that has the effect of boosting blood flow and activating your muscles. Stretching on the one-off or only when you exercise won’t give you optimal mobility and flexibility, the cumulative effect may be seen over time when you remain committed to the habit.