Stretching is popular in fitness programs, athletic preparations and injury rehabilitation, and beneficial for several muscle conditions. It is known to lessen stress, relieve headaches and backaches, and increase muscle flexibility and bone strength.
Cody Morris, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education’s Department of Human Studies, explains types of stretching and their benefits, warns about potential risks of not stretching and offers advice on dos and don’ts of stretching.
Benefits of stretching
Workplaces have seen a critical transformation, with remote work gaining popularity in an ever-changing world of the pandemic, or perhaps the endemic. Continuous sitting down during remote work can tense lower back muscles and lead to pain.
“Just standing up from your desk or chair at different points of the day to alleviate some muscle tightness is certainly helpful,” Morris said. “It is important to incorporate five- to 10-minute activity breaks while working because it may decrease muscle tightness and help maintain range of motion, which may also slow the degeneration of your joints.”
Morris says a common misconception is that stretching and improvements in flexibility prevent injury.
“Unfortunately, injuries happen, and despite all of the stretching and proper warm-up procedures, some injuries resulting from high-intensity activity are just bound to happen based on the type of activity being performed,” Morris said. “However, consistently performing a warm-up that includes dynamic functional movements prior to exercise can help to reduce the risk of some types of injuries to some degree.”
Risks of not stretching
There are potential risks involved with a sedentary lifestyle and not moving your muscles. Without consistent flexibility training, one’s range of motion will suffer.
“The common-sense use-it-or-lose-it principle applies here,” Morris said. “While we want muscles to be strong and able to produce force, we also need them to be pliable and elastic as well. The more consistently you pay attention to maintaining your range of motion, the more likely it is that you will be able to maintain or improve your muscular fitness.”
Static vs. dynamic stretching
There are a couple of different types of stretching, and each has its own benefits.
The most classic form is static stretching, where a person stretches to the point of mild discomfort, but not pain, and holds this stretch for 15-30 seconds. For example, when someone bends down to try to touch their toes, they are engaged in static stretching.
If you sit at a desk or table for hours, it’s important to stretch. Even small movements help prevent pain and may slow the degeneration of one’s joints. (Getty Images)
Another type is dynamic stretching, which is a type of functionally based stretching exercise that uses sport-specific or exercise-specific movements to prepare the body for activity. Common examples are a person performing high knees, lunges, arm circles and knee lifts prior to beginning any exercise.
While both types of stretching have their distinct benefits, static stretching mostly improves the range of motion at a specific joint when held at a specific angle, according to Morris.
Dynamic stretching is a more common type used as a pre-competition, pre-practice or pre-exercise warm-up technique.
“With dynamic stretching, the aim is to have active muscular facilitation throughout the full range of motion of the movement,” Morris said. “The reason this is the preferred method for performance is that this can lead to more functional improvements in the range of motion during exercise and can allow a person to potentially apply a greater amount of force over a full range of motion.”
According to UAB Medicine’s Orthopaedic Services, here are some important things to consider when stretching:
- Make sure the muscles are warm and pliable before pushing them to the limits of their range of motion. As part of a dynamic warm-up, that may include walking or very light jogging prior to going through a full functional stretching regimen.
- Correct technique. Once progress is made and a more aggressive stretching routine begins, remember that correct technique is a top priority. Work closely with a strength and conditioning professional whenever possible to perfect form before moving to advanced levels.
- Focus on the major areas of the body that help with mobility. These areas include calves, hamstrings, hips and thighs. For upper-body relief, use moves that stretch the shoulders, neck and lower back.
- Make the body’s muscles work, but do not stretch until it hurts. Proper stretches should never cause pain.
- Know the body’s limits. According to UAB Orthopaedics, some research has shown that stretching the muscles before they are warmed up can cause damage. Exercising first gets blood flowing to muscle tissue, making it pliable. However, that applies only to light physical activity, such as a quick walk, before stretching.
Morris recommends using static stretching as part of the cool-down period. “Not only is this the ideal time to perform this type of stretching for maximum benefit, but it is also a great way to allow your body time to bring your heart rate down, slow your breathing and simply just let your body come back to normal,” he said.
According to UAB Medicine’s Orthopaedic Services, here are some things to avoid when stretching:
- Avoid ballistic stretches. Ballistic stretching uses the force of the body in motion to push muscles beyond the normal range of motion – for example, bouncing down repeatedly to touch one’s toes. This type of stretching can lead to injury because it does not allow muscles to adjust and relax in a stretched position.
- Avoid bouncing at the end point of the stretch when performing static stretching because this can activate stretch receptors in the muscle that could trigger the stretch reflex, not allowing the muscle tissue to fully relax and limiting the ability to reach the full range of motion.
- Do not overwork the body’s muscles. Once an ideal range of motion for a joint is achieved in any direction, stop doing that movement during that workout. Tired and overworked muscles will not reach a full range of motion.
Stretching and aging
Flexibility declines with age just as anything else. As muscle fibers degenerate with inactivity, this tissue gets replaced with less pliable and more easily damaged tissue.
“However, there is plenty of evidence to show that flexibility training throughout the lifespan can help to slow the rate of deterioration,” Morris said.
According to Morris, some stretching is better than none.
“Even if you are older and have never consistently stretched, it is never too late to start,” he said. “There have been plenty of studies showing that, no matter one’s age, flexibility training and stretching can be incredibly beneficial.”
For people with sedentary jobs, Morris recommends little arm circles, shrugging shoulders and making circles with the feet while sitting in a chair.
“Any movement you perform if you have a sedentary job is going to be good for you,” he said.
This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.