When you think about working out—or even see it on TV, in movies, or at your own gym—does stretching come to mind? Probably not.
Stretching is easily ignored, even in commercials for gyms. Yet it’s an important part of any fitness program. Like many things in life, you want to avoid extremes. Stretching is no different. What the research shows is that the “extremes” of too little flexibility and too much flexibility are likely to cause injury and problems. And while research has never proven that stretching prevents injury (that is a myth), it still has its benefits, like enhancing post-workout recovery and decreasing soreness. Most people should aim for an average to “normal” level of flexibility, but if you don’t stretch regularly, your range of motion will decline.
So how do you begin? First, never stretch before a workout. Spark People encourages people to stretch after their workouts when your muscles are warmest and least prone to injury from improper stretching. Exercise loosens the muscles and joints and prepares them to be stretched. After your proper warm-up, workout and cool-down comes stretching.
Try to hit every muscle group when stretching. The key to proper stretching is knowing how far to go—you should feel slight discomfort, but not pain. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Here are a few more tips:
- Inhale deeply.
- As you exhale, slowly and smoothly stretch to a point of moderate tension, before the warm “burn” turns painful. Never bounce or jerk.
- Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds.
- Breathe deeply and naturally during the stretch hold. Don’t hold your breath. Stay relaxed.
Slowly return to your start position, and relax for a few seconds.
- Repeat the stretch two more times, if you choose.
- If possible, try to stretch a little farther each time you stretch—but don’t push it.
Stretching after a workout also relaxes your muscles, increases circulation to joints and tissues, and helps remove unwanted waste products, thereby reducing muscle soreness and stiffness.