Stretching is one of the most commonly performed exercises in the world, yet people often don’t know if they are doing it right. Or worse, some of us think that we are stretching correctly but are doing it very wrong.
It is important to know what the best stretches are and how long to hold a stretch to get the most benefit for our bodies. We will give you these answers and more in this article, and even some surprising corrections to common misguided beliefs.
Even if you don’t follow a standard daily workout routine, like running or aerobics, stretching is vital for your health and mobility. Physical movement helps to maintain bone density, cardiovascular health and a good mood, and stretching is a great daily activity to help achieve these goals.
What is stretching?
This seems like a simple question but it is important to know what something is in order to do it right. Stretching often doesn’t feel like exercise, but it is, and it could well be one of the most common exercises that both humans and animals share.
Stretching is the intentional flexing of specific muscle groups to gain elasticity and a more comfortable muscle tone.
Are there different types of stretches?
There are seven different styles of stretching that people use to prepare for, and cool down from, physical activity. They are:
- Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.
The benefits of stretching
According to the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, stretching can have many benefits. The jury is still out and a lot of research is being conducted to decide what is most effective and discover new benefits, but overall it has been proven that stretching can:
- Improve range of motion
- Improve flexibility
- Increase muscle control
- Help to prevent injuries
- Promote muscle healing
- Decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness
- Help to prevent and alleviate muscle cramps.
Stretching is instinctive and almost animals do it.
Have you ever seen a tiger or cat put its paws out front and arch its back toward the ground? It’s a natural activity that opens the spaces between vertebra and releases pressure on the nerves of the spinal column. This position is very like the “downward dog” position practiced in yoga.
Can you do stretches wrong?
Even though stretching is instinctive and natural, you can definitely do it wrong. This is because when humans exercise, they sometimes fight their instincts, thinking that they will get more of a physical benefit by stretching in a less natural way. The fact is, a good stretch should feel very good.
What can happen if you stretch the wrong way?
Stretching the wrong way can cause:
- permanent damage to tendons, muscles and ligaments
- muscle tears
Experts agree that ballistic stretching is always wrong and never recommended. Ballistic stretching involves hyper-extending a muscle to the point of pain and can lead to the injuries mentioned above.
What is the right way to stretch then?
The type of stretch you need and how long you should hold it depends on the type of activity you are engaging in and when you are stretching.
Coaches and athletes used to perform static stretches before physical activity, but over the past decade more experts are agreeing that this method is not the most beneficial. They are now including dynamic stretches in workout routines and seeing a great benefit.
Static verses dynamic stretching
Static stretching is performed by extending a muscle from a resting position and focuses strictly on flexibility. Dynamic stretching mimics the body’s natural motions during a workout or sport and prepares the body for action.
According to two recent studies, it is best to practice dynamic stretching before your workout and static stretching after your workout. Once you have figured out which type of stretch you need to perform, how long you should hold your stretch depends on which type you are doing.
How to perform dynamic stretching
As we said above, dynamic stretching will mimic the type of activity you are about to perform.
For instance: If you are about to go for a run, you might bring your knee to your chest by holding your shin and then alternating with the other leg. If you are about to engage in a kick boxing match, you might do high kicks to warm up your hamstrings and prepare them for the explosive movements needed for a match.
You generally won’t hold these stretches at all as the focus on the motion of the stretch.
How to perform static stretching
Once your work out is complete, static stretching will help ease and relax your tired muscles and hopefully prevent cramps. Some of the most common static stretches are toe touches, trunk rotation, arm and shoulder stretch and neck bends. These are the stretches you should hold.
Now, the answer to the question… How long should a static stretch be held? The answer is, it depends on your age. A study in Physical Therapy found that seniors over the age of 65 benefit most from 60-second stretches. For the rest of the population, including young children, 30 seconds per muscle group seems to be sufficient and provides the most benefit per seconds spent.
Can you hold a stretch for too long?
Definitely. According to Prevention magazine, any stretches that last over 60 seconds can seriously risk damaging the affected muscle groups and tendons. To be safe, it’s best to stick to 30 second stretches for each group of muscles.
Now you know how long to hold a stretch and which types of stretches to perform before and after your activity. Use this guide to try out new and different stretching techniques to see how your health, flexibility and mood will improve.