If you long to grow limber and nimble, stretches have you covered. Stretching increases flexibility and balance, allowing you to achieve postures that weren't possible in the past. When it comes to stretching, consistency is the name of the game -- you need to stretch at least two to three times each week to make steady gains, and taking a week or two off might cause muscles to tighten back up.
Stretches and Flexibility
The main perk of stretching is increased range of motion, or flexibility. As you grow more flexible, you may experience improved athletic performance and even feel less pain during physical activities. For example, MayoClinic.com reports that if you hike uphill with tightness in the Achilles tendon, you may not be able to bend your foot for proper form, which may lead to increased trauma. However, a review published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2005 suggests that despite improvements in flexibility, athletes who stretch may not be less prone to injury during sports.
Static stretches are the status quo, and most general fitness programs use these to increase flexibility. During static stretching, you stretch your body until you feel tension and hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds. Although you will likely experience gains in flexibility with frequent static stretching, experts do not believe this style provides the greatest benefit, according to the book "Full-Body Flexibility" by Jay Blahnik.
Dynamic stretching may be the wave of the future, says Blahnik, because it offers more significant improvements in range of motion than static stretching. To perform dynamic stretches, hold position for just a few seconds, but repeat the move 10 to 12 times. Throughout dynamic stretches, movement remains slow and smooth rather than jerky. Dynamic stretches don't use the bouncing motion of ballistic stretches, which may cause injury.
Stretching is not a warmup, and to avoid injury you need to heat your muscles first with five to 10 minutes of light cardio, such as walking or using a stationary bike. Rather than only stretching the muscles you use during exercise, work on all muscle groups, being careful to stretch opposing muscles. For example, stretch both the chest and upper back to avoid imbalanced posture. Breathe slowly throughout stretching, exhaling as you reach full extension. Never stretch muscles far enough to cause pain. If you're new to exercise or have any health conditions, see your physician before starting a new exercise routine.
- MayoClinic.com: Stretching: Focus on Flexibility
- Pubmed.gov: Effect of Stretching on Sport Injury Risk: A Review
- Full-Body Flexibility, Second Edition; Jay Blahnik
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association: Spotlight On Stretching
- Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images