Reposted from: https://www.self.com/story/benefits-of-stretching
Stretching is one component of fitness that a lot of us find way too easy to skip. But there are some benefits of stretching that might just make you want to add it to your routine.
While the research on stretching is a bit mixed, there are some legit mental and physical benefits to incorporating it into your routine, whether you stretch pre-workout, at the end of your session, or another time during the day People who make time for stretching may find it helps their workouts—and daily life—feel a little (or a lot) better.
But before we dig into those benefits, it can be helpful to understand what exactly we mean by stretching.
Stretching is basically any movement that lengthens your muscles (and along with them, the tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue) even temporarily, physical therapist and strength coach Ivan Hernandez, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of Executive Park PT and Wellness in New York, tells SELF. Pretty much every time you move your body, something is getting stretched, Candace Harding, D.P.T., a physical therapist and registered yoga teacher in Vienna, Virginia, tells SELF.
To get a little more specific though, there are several different types of stretches. Static stretches involve moving into an end range of motion and then holding that position, physical therapist and strength coach Ravi Patel, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Impact Health and Performance in Atlanta, tells SELF. Examples of static stretches include pulling your heel to your butt and holding it there to stretch your quad, or bending and pulling your elbow overhead to stretch your tricep.
Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, involve active, controlled movements performed through a larger range of motion, physical therapist Cydni Matsuoka, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., from SPEAR Physical Therapy in New York City, tells SELF. Think: walking lunges, arm circles, and deep squats. Oftentimes dynamic stretches are done pre-workout as a way to prepare your muscles, tendons, and ligaments for exercise, she explains.
There are also ballistic stretches, which involve aggressively bouncing or otherwise moving into an end range of motion, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches, which involve contracting and relaxing muscles as a way to increase a stretch. Because ballistic stretching is not recommended for the general population (it can be dangerous), and PNF stretching is often done with the assistance of a professional, we’re not going to focus on those two forms of stretching in this article.
Physical Benefits of Stretching
Flexibility is the range of motion of a joint, or group of joints, certified exercise physiologist, John Ford, owner of JKF Fitness & Health in New York City, tells SELF. Stretching can help increase your range of motion—both temporarily and in the long-term. The temporary gains may be the result of your nervous system becoming more tolerant to a stretch position, says Patel. These gains often disappear within a day or even a few hours. To actually lengthen the muscle and thus improve your range of motion long term, you need to stretch diligently about five to six days a week, he says.
If you’re able to stick with a regular stretching routine, you may see only an increase in range of motion, but also improvement in your performance. Ford explains it this way: The more range of motion you have, the more muscle you’ll be able to activate. For example, if you have limited range of motion in your hamstrings, you might only be able to activate, say, 40% of the muscle when performing a single-leg deadlift. But if you increase your hamstring flexibility, you can then activate, say 60%, of that muscle. The result? You’ll gain strength, Ford explains, which would allow you to lift more weight—and thus get even stronger. Having more range of motion can also help you perform a broader range of exercises, he adds.
Increasing your flexibility won’t just improve your workouts—it can also make everyday life better, too, says Ford. You may not realize it, but there are a lot of daily tasks that involve some level of flexibility. Like squatting to sink in and out of a chair, leaning over to get in your car, and bending down to scoop up your toddler. By boosting your flexibility with stretching, you’ll be able to perform these small but essential day-to-day movements more easily and effectively.
Experts typically recommend dynamic stretches before a workout. That’s because pre-workout dynamic stretches are “a way of moving slow before you move fast,” says Hernandez. By doing this, “you’re preparing your body to work efficiently in order to both produce and absorb high forces,” he explains.
Dynamic stretches can also help fire up the mind-muscle connection, says Ford. The mind-muscle connection is basically the notion that you can help your muscles work more efficiently during a workout just by thinking about the ones you are activating as you move. For example, if you have a solid mind-muscle connection when you’re deadlifting, you can make sure that your hamstrings and glutes are engaging and doing the work rather than your lower back.
Warming up before a workout can help reduce your risk of injury, and dynamic stretching is one component of a good warm-up (along with light movement that gets your heart rate up). Dynamic stretching helps warm up your muscles, joints, and tendons, and temporarily increases your range of motion. This, in turn, can help you perform the moves in your workout with the ideal body positioning.
Take a squat for example. If you tried to do the movement without warming up first, you wouldn’t be able to sink as low, Randi Blackmon, ACSM-certified exercise physiologist in Houston, Texas, tells SELF. To compensate for that shortened range of motion, you might lean forward, which could stress your back, or turn your knees in, which could cause pain on the outside of that joint, she explains. But if you dynamically warm up first and then squat, you have a better chance of actually nailing the move, pain-free.
It’s important to give your body time to cool down after a workout before you go on about the rest of your day, says Patel. Doing so will help lower your heart rate, calm your breathing, and more quickly ease you out of the heightened state you were in while exercising. One way to achieve this calmed state, says Patel, is to do static stretching combined with deep breathing.
Stretching after a workout can also increase blood flow, boost oxygen levels, help deliver nutrients to your body and your muscles, and help aid with the recovery process, Jennifer Morgan, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a sports physical therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, previously told SELF.
Stretching can be a great way to identify imbalances in flexibility or areas of extra tightness in the body, which then gives you a chance to correct those problem areas before they lead to injury, says Ford. For example, say you’re stretching your hips in a lunging hip flexor stretch and notice that you’re able to sink deeper into the stretch on your right side compared to your left. That discrepancy would alert you to the fact that you have an imbalance in hip openness that’s probably also showing up when you do exercises involving the hips, like running, squatting, and lunging.
With that intel, you can then be extra cognizant to work your hips evenly through their full range of motion whenever you perform exercises involving the hips. You may also want to add more unilateral exercises into your routine to further combat the imbalance.
If you work a traditional desk job, you’re probably sitting for eight hours or more every day. And now, thanks to stay-at-home life, many of us are spending even more time on our butts after the workday wraps. All that time in the same position can cause certain muscles, like your hip flexors, to adaptively shorten and thus feel “tight,” explains Matsuoka.
A consistent static stretching routine may help reverse that adaptive shortening and thus alleviate that achy sensation by increasing flexibility in the muscle, says Matsuoka. You can also combat that tightness by simply moving more during the day. One easy way to achieve that? Do five minutes of dynamic stretching every hour, says Ford, who suggests moves like hip circles and swinging arm hugs. These brief bursts of activity can go a long way to combating your daytime tightness, he says.
Mental Benefits of Stretching
For a lot of people, stretching just feels good. And things that make us feel good—whether that’s eating a warm chocolate chip cookie, taking a hot bath, or stretching—can help reduce chronic stress and bring us closer to a calmer state, Hernandez explains.
Stretching can be especially relaxing mentally if you pair it with deep breathing. Every time you release a deep breath, imagine you’re letting go of a stressor in your life and then sink a tiny bit lower into the stretch, suggests Blackmon. (Just make sure you’re not stretching to the point of pain.) Stretching in this very intentional way can definitely give you a mental boost, she says.
Ford considers stretching a true act of self-care. The movement not only provides a sense of release and helps you feel connected to your body, but it can also serve as a powerful reminder that you took the time to do something restorative for yourself. “That just plays such a big, big role mentally,” Ford says.
Finishing your workout with tough AF burpees, or a lung-busting sprint down the block might not leave you with the most, um, pleasant impression of your exercise session. Doing some gentle stretches, on the other hand, can help you end your workout on a happier, calmer note. And if doing those gentle stretches makes you think more positively about the workout in general and thus more likely to do it again, then that right there is a benefit, says Hernandez.