Loads of people think stretching is just for athletes. But everyone from Olympic champions to couch potatoes should stretch regularly in order to keep muscles and joints strong, flexible, and healthy. A little time spent stretching now is an amazing investment in your future - improving your posture, joint health, reducing risk of injury, and minimising aches and pains, among tonnes of other benefits.
Who Should Be Stretching?
Everyone. If you're a runner, it will help to reduce risk of long-term joint pain. If you're a weightlifter, it will reduce the risk of injury and lower back pain. If you're a gymnast, it will increase your range of movement and improve your performance. And if you don't exercise much, it's perhaps even more important, as sitting in a chair for most of the day will cause your hamstrings and other muscles to tighten, which often leads to lower back pain, knee pain, or can indirectly lead to pain almost anywhere in your body (because all weight bearing joints affect one another).
What are the Short-Term Benefits of Stretching?
- Increased circulation - stretching for 20-30 minutes will get the heart pumping and many postures help your lymphatic system circulate nutrients and eliminate cellular waste
- Stress relief - getting the heart pumping alone is a great way to relieve stress, as the hormones serotonin and endorphins are released when we exercise, making us feel happier. That combined with relieving tense / tight muscles will see your stress become a distant memory!
- Burn some calories - 30 minutes of stretching can burn between 120 and 178 calories, depending on your weight and intensity of the stretching (1)
- Reduce the risk of injury - while there is some controversy about whether stretching alone before exercise reduces the risk of injury (2), there is good evidence that stretching along with warming up does help (3). (I always remember the analogy 'warm toffee bends, cold toffee snaps' when feeling tempted to skip a warm up before a workout!)
What Will I Get From Stretching in the Long Run?
- Feeling flexible and supple - after just a couple of weeks of regular stretching, you'll start to feel more flexible which actually feels great. Everyday actions like tying your shoelaces feel easier, and you may find your performance improves for many sports (like reaching a higher kick in football, or feeling more supple with your golf swing).
- Many aches and pains will improve - for example, so many people get a sore, burning upper back because they have tight chest muscles from sitting at desks too much, which pulls the shoulders forwards, creating tension in the back. Stretching your chest will help to draw your shoulders back and pain often disappears within a couple of weeks!
- Improve joint health - the Arthritis Foundation (4) recommend stretching to ease arthritic symptoms and to maintain / improve the range of motion around joints.
- Improve posture - after just 2 weeks of regular stretching, improvements can be seen in posture. For example, a study showed that people with forward head / rounded shoulder postures significantly improved their shoulder positions after stretching their chest for just two weeks (5).
- Keeps muscles strong - although stretching before exercise has been shown to decrease your strength in the short term, muscles have been shown to respond to stretching in the long term by sarcomerogenesis (6) - the creation of new sarcomere units (the contractile units of the muscle cells). In practical terms, studies have shown that over just five weeks, stretching leads to increases in muscle strength (7).
How should you stretch?
- First things first - if you're new to stretching then always start off very simply and easily before gradually building up to pushing your stretches a little harder or using more complex stretches.
- Warm up - it's important to warm up before stretching, as well as before cardio and strength training. 5-10 minutes of jogging (on the spot, up the road, or on a treadmill) is all that's needed to warm your body temperature, which increases blood flow to your muscles, making them more flexible and less likely to sprain or strain.
- Focus on stretching on the days you are not training - doing a full-body stretch on your rest days is a great way to reap all the benefits of stretching (improved blood flow, increased flexibility, burning calories etc) on days that you're not already exercising. It can also help to slightly reduce any muscle soreness from your training (8).
- Stretch different muscles between sets - for example, if you're training your chest, do some hamstring stretches in between bench pressing. Because to achieve improvements in your flexibility, you need to do it often, so stretching between sets is a great use of time. It also helps to keep you focused on your training, and resist the temptation to look at your phone, which is a real game killer!
- Start with the hamstrings and chest - these are the two most common areas for tightness, due to the fact that most of us sit for so much of the day. So if you only have 5 minutes to spare and don't have time to stretch your whole body, at least doing these areas should help your flexibility and reduce many aches and pains.
- Try yoga - this post is to encourage you to stretch and to inform you of the basic principles, rather than to go through each of the stretches. But yoga is a great way to learn how to stretch all parts of your body. If you can't make a class, there's loads of demos on youtube which you can follow for yoga or just general stretching routines!
- Roddey, T., Olson, S., & Grant, S. (2002). The effect of pectoralis muscle stretching on the rest in position of the scapula in persons with varying degrees of forward head/rounded shoulder posture. Journal of Manual and Manipulative Therapy. 10(3), 124-8
- Zöllner, A., Abilez, O., Böl, M., Kuhl, E., & Leach, K. (2012). Stretching Skeletal Muscle: Chronic Muscle Lengthening through Sarcomerogenesis. Plos one. 7(10), E45661.
- Ryan, E., Herda, T., Costa, P., Walter, A., Hoge, K., & Cramer, J. (2011). The effects of chronic stretch training on muscle strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25, S4A,S5.
- Herbert, R., De Noronha, M., & Kamper, J. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011, Issue 7