An often neglected part of the workout is, quite possibly, the most important part of your workout; stretching! Stretching can boast many benefits, but many people just don’t know enough about it to do it effectively. Here, we’ll tackle some of the bigger questions about stretching.
Why should I stretch? Stretching improves flexibility and mobility, improves circulation, reduces risk of injury, relaxes the body and mind, improves sport performance, and improves gains! Yes, you read that right. A good post-workout stretch can improve your results. Muscle is actually not built during the workout. It is built in recovery. Increased blood flow to the muscles (as mentioned above) will aid in recovery, making it both faster and more efficient. This allows you to maximise on the workout that you just completed.
When should I stretch? You can stretch at any time, as long as you warm up the muscles first. Stretching cold muscles can result in muscle tears, especially if you are stretching to increase flexibility. Even in yoga, the instructor goes through a series of light, warm-up stretches before going into more intense poses. If you are concerned about stretching for a workout, you should stretch both before and after. It is important to note, however, that your stretch before and your stretch after will be different.
How should I stretch? Once your muscles are warm enough to handle stretching, you should always move into and out of each stretch slowly and deliberately. When it comes to exercise, you can either do a general warm-up and then do very brief, light stretches (up to 5 seconds) or you can incorporate your stretching regimen into your actual warm-up by doing a dynamic warm-up or dynamic stretches (constantly moving into and out of stretch positions instead of holding the position) before you exercise. After your workout, you want to stretch for a minimum of 10 seconds for each muscle. You should avoid ballistic stretching (think of it as extreme dynamic stretching) as much as possible. If your goal is to increase flexibility, you are now looking at overstretching (stretching until you feel notable discomfort — not pain — in the targeted muscle) and each position should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds.
What should I stretch? Everything! However, if you have specific goals that involve specific muscles, you should focus on those. If you want to improve your split, you should focus on your hip adductors (groin muscles) and hip flexors. If you are doing a leg day in the gym, your focus should be all the muscles of the legs and the lower back. If you are part of some fitness class (gym, yoga, aerobics, etc.), just do whatever your instructor/trainer tells you.
It is extremely important to remember to stretch, whether as a regular routine or as part of a general fitness regimen. Not stretching can lead to many problems later on (or even immediately) or, at the very least, can prevent you from seeing certain improvements in your life and fitness in general.