When and How to Stretch: Myth vs. Fact
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For many of us, stretching seems like a necessary annoyance before and after a workout, but one that we would never, ever skip. (Read: We skip it all the time).
It is true that the benefits of stretching are in constant debate, but there are some beliefs that are myths and others that should be taken to heart.
Myth: Stretching can prevent injuries.** Fact:** Believe it or not, the jury is still out on whether stretching before a workout actually prevents injuries. Conventional wisdom tells us that a stretched and limber muscle should be less likely to sustain an injury, but the National Institutes of Health says that studies go back and forth on whether this is the case.
It is generally accepted, however, that stretching before and after an athletic activity will improve performance, even if it doesn’t directly prevent an injury.
Myth: Ballistic stretching (bouncing) means a better stretch.** Fact:** Nope, not even a little bit. Bouncing while you stretch – sometimes a common practice among athletes – can cause small tears in your muscles. These tears, if they don’t injure you, will eventually turn into scar tissue. Scar tissue will make you less flexible and can cause pain.
Instead, hold each stretch for about 30 seconds and repeat three or four times, alternating sides, before moving on to the next muscle group.
Myth: You should stretch until your muscle begins to hurt.
Fact: There is an idea out there that you must advance a stretch until you feel pain, and then hold it there if you want to improve flexibility. This is not a good idea and can actually cause injury.
Instead, advance the stretch until you feel tension, but not pain. If you do start to feel pain as you stretch, back off the stretch until it no longer hurts and hold it there. As you become more limber, you will be able to achieve a deeper stretch without pain. That is how you improve flexibility.
Myth: You should stretch before warming up.** Fact:** It is never a good idea to try to stretch cold muscles for two reasons:
- You are more likely to injure yourself by pushing cold muscles too far.
- You will get a better stretch if you stretch your muscles after a light cardio warm up.
Start a workout routine with five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity that leaves your heart rate slightly elevated, but not as much as your primary cardio workout does. A slow jog is a good example.
The light activity will get your blood pumping a little and warm up your muscles before you attempt to stretch them. Then, when you do stop to stretch your warmed-up muscles, you will be able to achieve a deeper, safer and more beneficial stretch.
Myth: I need a long, complicated stretching routine.** Fact:** There is no need to meticulously stretch every single muscle in your body. You would do nothing but stretch if you tried to do that.
Instead, focus on major muscle groups. The Mayo Clinic suggests that you pay particular attention to the calves, thighs, hamstrings, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Be sure to stretch both sides of the body equally.
It is also important to stretch the muscles that you use regularly. For example, runners should stretch their hamstrings and quadriceps routinely and swimmers should pay special attention to their backs and shoulders. You’ll be able to feel which muscles need the most attention as you settle into a workout routine.
If you are injured, you will need to modify your stretching routine to prevent further injury and accommodate healing. It is best to do this with the help of a doctor or physical therapist.
Myth: There’s no need to maintain a stretching routine.** Fact:** Whatever and however you stretch, do it regularly. The body loses flexibility very quickly once you slack off with your stretching routine. Most physicians suggest stretching at least three or four times each week for optimal performance.
Stretching is always worth the time.
Mayo Clinic, Stretching: Focus on flexibility. (February, 2011). Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/HQ01447
National Institutes of Health, Stretching and injury prevention: An obscure relationship. (2004). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15233597
Rice University, Introduction to Stretching. Retrieved from: http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/stretching.html
Sara is a former editor for HealthCentral.