By David Hawkins, Exercise Specialist
When it comes to stretching, you can often categorise people into one of three groups: those who regularly stretch, those who don’t and those who stretch a little or occasionally.
How you would categorise yourself probably depends on the benefits you perceive or receive from stretching. But what does the research say? What are the benefits of stretching? What is the best way to stretch? When is the best time to stretch?
What are the benefits of stretching?
Most people will argue 4 main benefits of stretching. The first is an increased range of motion. Second, a reduced risk of injury. Third and fourth, improved performance and recovery. Let’s look at these in a little more detail:
- Increase range of motion. It is true, stretching does help to increase range of motion. Many people think this is achieved by making our muscles longer. However, this is not the case, at least by conventional means (usually holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds). Stretching increases our range of motion by increasing our threshold to tolerate tension. Therefore, our ability to increase our range of motion may be limited – those with naturally longer muscles may have a greater potential. Not all of us are destined to do the splits (or even touch our toes).
- Reduce risk of injury. Unfortunately, there is inconsistent and insufficient evidence to support the argument that stretching reduces the risk of injury.
- Improve performance. Dynamic or moving stretches can be a great inclusion to your warm-up routine and can help to prepare the musculoskeletal and nervous systems for exercise. However, some evidence suggests that static stretches (those held for 20-30 seconds) performed immediately before an event, may have a negative effect on performance, especially activities requiring speed and explosive power.
- Improve recovery. Following exercise, static stretching may help to reduce the muscle-shortening/tightening impact of high eccentric loads (exercises that require our muscles to contract while lengthening, e.g. sprinting and explosive/plyometric exercises). There is no evidence that stretching helps to relieve DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) – the muscular pain experienced for 1-3 days (on average) after performing an exercise you are unaccustomed to.
What is the best way to stretch?
All stretches should be performed after an adequate warm-up, within a comfortable range of motion, and with a comfortable amount of tension. Perform dynamic (not ballistic/uncontrolled) stretches before exercise, especially those activities that require power, speed or explosiveness. Dynamic stretches should replicate the required movements of the task or activity, e.g. forward and backward leg swings for sprinting.
Perform static (non-moving) stretches after exercise. Hold static stretches for 20-30 seconds each. Stretch all major muscle groups included in the activity, e.g. after sprinting, stretch chest, back, shoulders, buttocks, thighs, and calves.
When is the best time to stretch?
Following an adequate warm-up or activity. Time static and dynamic stretches, as above.