We all know that stretching is important (and if you didn’t, consider this your wake-up call!), but do you know why? And do you know that there are different types of stretching that you should do, depending on whether you’re starting or finishing your workout? Keep reading to find out more…
Stretching is an incredibly important component of physical fitness and should be done daily to protect our mobility – it’s not something you should just do on the days that you hit the gym. Incorporating stretches into your daily routine can help to counteract the tension in muscles caused by poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle.
Keeping the muscles flexible and healthy is key to maintain proper range of motion in our joints. Failing to stretch means that muscles shorten and become tight, reducing their ability to extend fully and putting you at risk of joint pain and muscle injuries. Further benefits include improved blood flow and circulation. What’s more, as well as easing physical tension in the muscles, stretching can also help to ease mental tension, especially when combined with mindful breathing techniques.
There are two types of stretching that you should be aware of – dynamic and static stretching.
This means taking your joints and muscles through a full range of motion, via controlled and deliberate movements that ideally mimic the activity you are about to do. Examples include high knees, shoulder circles, walk outs and lunges.
This type of stretching should be done before a workout, as it wakes up your body by elevating your heart rate and body temperature. As well as helping your muscles to move more efficiently, it helps to create that “mind-muscle” connection. Additionally, dynamic stretches prepare your body for specific movements. If you’re about to go for a run, for example, some walking lunges or lunges with a twist would be a great stretch to include in your warm-up.
Static stretches, on the other hand, means stretching your muscle out until you feel a slight degree of discomfort, then holding it for 20-30 seconds. The idea is to elongate the muscle and increase its flexibility by pushing it past the point where it wants to go (but without causing pain). The discomfort and tightness that you feel is the result of proprioceptors in your muscle spindles warning the brain that the muscle is as stretched as it can get, and that moving any further would risk injury.
It’s important to keep holding the stretch beyond this point, to allow the muscle to adjust to its new length and for the proprioceptors to settle down. The tightness will fade as your body realises that this lengthening of the muscle is part of a safe range of motion. With regular stretching, this lengthening can become a permanent change. Research shows that stretching without pushing your muscle to its maximum limit will not result in any improvements in mobility.
Examples of static stretches include the hamstring stretch. Lie prone on the floor and loop a strap or, if you’re at home, a long bath towel, around one of your feet (just under the balls of your feet), keeping this leg straight. The other leg should be bent, with the foot flat on the floor. Holding the strap in both hands, gently bring your straight leg up until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs). As you exhale, try to bring the stretch a little deeper.
There is a type of static stretching called Post-Isometric Relaxation, often used by physical therapists to treat tight muscles. This technique begins with the therapist stretching the patients muscle to the end of its resistance barrier, but not to the extent of causing any serious discomfort or pain. The patient will then be asked to resist the stretch by pushing back against the therapist, to contract the muscle isometrically (an isometric contraction is when the muscle contracts, but does not shorten, so there is no movement, for example holding a dumbbell at a constant position instead of doing a bicep curl). The resistance for this contraction should last for a short period of time only, around 10 seconds, using up to 20% of the patient’s maximum strength. After those 10 seconds, the therapist lets the patient relax the muscle, then uses this rest period to gently stretch the muscle further, until it reaches the next resistance barrier. This series of actions is repeated several times, to provide lasting relief from tightness and muscle tenderness.
One critical error that a lot of people make is to rush through their warm-up. A few half-hearted toe taps, quad stretches and side bends before you chuck on your trainers and start your workout just isn’t enough – you need to take the time to prepare your body for the demands that are about to be placed on it.
Another mistake is doing static stretches before a workout. These should be saved for after your workout, when your muscles are warmer and more pliable. Doing static stretches before you work out puts you at risk of injury from muscle tears and can actually reduce the effectiveness of your workout – some studies, suggest that static stretching can negatively impact muscle performance and make gym-goers feel less stable when lifting heavy weights during movements like squats. Static stretches are much more suited to a cool-down routine, as they help the body to gradually cool down and return to its normal state.
Crucially, you should listen to your body and not push too hard – a little discomfort and tightness is to be expected, but you should not experience any pain. Ease into a stretch gently, in a controlled and smooth way – never bounce into it, as abruptly forcing cold muscles to stretch may put you at risk of a muscle tear.
So, hopefully now you can see why stretching – and the right kind of stretching, at the right moment – is incredibly important. That’s why our trainers will always dedicate the start of the session to a thorough warm-up, first by gently loosening up the body on the Water Rower, then by raising the heart rate and getting the muscles warmed up with some dynamic movements, like plank walk-outs with hip openers, high-knees and squats. And at the end of the workout, they’ll guide you through a number of static stretches to help your body cool-down effectively, bringing your temperature and heart rate back down to normal levels.
Lots of people struggle to find the time or discipline to stretch every day – so if this is you, don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone!