Stretching. When you read that word you probably immediately think – oh I should do that more. Or maybe you think of your yoga practice. Or how you went for a run last night and didn’t stretch and is that why you’re sore?
There is a lot of (mis)information out there about stretching.
I am a physiotherapist and a yoga teacher so I hear about it often in my professional life. Patients come in saying they’d like some stretches to help with their pain, yoga students saying their hamstrings are SO tight but then folding in half completely to touch their toes or the floor, runners wondering if they should stretch their hip flexors a bit more.
Stretching is an easy thing to do, often does not require any equipment, and can be helpful to our health. But how do we do it optimally so we get the most out of our stretch sessions? We’ll start with is a definition so we are all on the same page.
Merriam-Webster defines stretching as: to become extended in length or breadth, or both; to extend one’s body or limbs. Jules Mitchell is a stretching expert and she defines stretching as a tensile load – this means that when tension is applied to the muscle by our own body positioning or movement, or by an outside force, it is stretching. So we can take from this that stretching involves the lengthening of a muscle. It is important to note that we can lengthen a muscle when it is in a relaxed state, or when it is in an engaged state. We can also use the opposite muscle to lengthen a muscle, a great example of this being using our quads (thigh muscles) to straighten our leg to help lengthen our hamstrings.
People tend to think stretching is about getting more flexible and this can be the case if you are training for gymnastics or ballet, or if you have an injury to a certain area that has tightened up. For the average person, stretching is aimed at maintaining normal mobility, even movement side to side, and preventing imbalances that can lead to pain and injury down the road.
Stretching can improve flexibility if needed, it can improve your posture, but most importantly stretching can improve your body awareness – it can give you a chance to know how your body is doing and what it is up to. This is important in so many ways. First of all, if you’re in touch with your body you know where your normal tight spots are, and if a new tight or sore spot is developing. This is key for injury prevention. You can do a scan of your activities and see if there’s anything new you may be doing that may be bothering that spot.
People can find stretching annoying or boring because it is slow.
There are two ways to address this: the first is that stretching doesn’t have to be slow and the second is that you can embrace that and make it a meditative time to connect with yourself and your body.
Dynamic stretching is a wonderful option. Some experts will even tell you this is the best way to stretch! Dynamic stretching means going into and out of a movement, or doing circular movements like arm circles. It represents the movements you intend to do in your workout or activity. Dynamic stretching is
the best stretching to do BEFORE activity.
Static stretching is safe and healthy to do but caution should be used before playing sports or lifting weights as researchers have found that it can actually decrease the ability of the stretched muscle to produce force. This means the muscle would be more at risk of strain or that the joints supported by that muscle may be more at risk of injury. Static stretching is best done AFTER activity, as a standalone activity, or as a microbreak in your day.
The most recent American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for stretching are 3+ times per week, stretching to the point of mild discomfort, holding for 10-30 seconds but 30-60 seconds if you’re ‘older’ (which they do not define)
This (and my professional experience) tells us that its not stretching one time after a big run or big game that matters, its having a consistent stretching practice that can help improve body awareness, decrease soreness, and decrease injury risk. Consistency is key. And it doesn’t have to be a lot, it doesn’t even have to be all at once. Stretching is a great microbreak throughout your day – especially if you sit a lot for work and tend to rely on snacking or caffeine to keep your energy up. Getting up to stretch can be just as energizing and is definitely healthier.
Now every person is different and we all have different requirements when it comes to our mobility. As a physiotherapist I’m a little hesitant in creating a ‘one size fits all’ stretching plan but there are generalizations I can make, muscle groups that are tight in many many people.
Here are the best stretches to do for your posture and joint health
**this is not personal medical advice and if you have injuries or have ever been diagnosed with hypermobility, please don’t do these, see a health care professional first to get a personalized plan**
Stand in a corner with your elbows bent to 90 degrees, palms on the wall. Take a step toward the corner and breathe into your chest muscles as you feel them expand.
Start on your hands and knees, bring your bum back to your heels with your arms out in front of you (bend your elbows if this is too tight or sore for your shoulders), palms facing each other. View Here.
Use a foam roller or tightly rolled towel, place it on the ground and lay back on it at about the level of your shoulder blades with your knees bent and feet planted. Interlace your fingers behind your head and rest your head heavy into your hands. Take a deep breath in as you bend backward over the roll. View Stretch Here
Stand up and bring your hands up over your head, interlace your fingers and soften your shoulders. Keep both feet planted as you bend over to the right. Repeat on the other side. View Here.
5) Hip flexors
Start in a low lunge stance, your right foot back, right knee down and left foot forward. Pull your right hip forward as you bend into your left knee. Sink your hips down as you breathe into the front of your right hip. View Here.
Stand up by a counter or other high surface you can hold on to with one hand. Bend one knee and take hold of that foot with your hand on the same side. Squeeze your bum muscles to lengthen the front of your hip as you gently pull your foot toward your bum. View Here.
There are many ways to do this but one of the simplest is to start standing and take a medium sized step backward with one foot, keep both legs mostly straight, you could have a micro-bend in your front knee. Keep your spine straight as you hinge forward at the hips any amount until you feel a stretch in the back of your front leg. View Here.
8) Hip rotators
My favourite stretch for this area is called “deer pose” or “90/90” because it stretches both your internal and external rotators at the same time. Start seated and place one leg out in front of you, with your knee bent to 90 degrees so that your shin goes straight across in front of you. Your other leg will come straight out of your hip joint to the side and your knee is bent to 90 degrees so your foot faces behind you. You can either sit like this or fold forward to intensify the stretch over the front leg. View Here.
There are many people who FEEL like they have a tight muscle all the time,
but when I watch them stretch it, it has more than full functional range, aka the yogi who has ‘tight’ hamstrings but then folds forward and puts her hands flat on the floor. This is very common in hypermobile people. The muscle is lengthened and can be weak, and it gives off a signal that something isn’t right which comes across as a sensation of tightness. If this is ringing a bell for you – please see a physiotherapist or other movement professional as this area of your body needs to be strengthened and stabilized, not stretched further.
So like many things when it comes to your health, consistency is key for stretching. If you have an injury or very tight spot this stretching may be aimed at increasing your mobility but if you are an average person your stretching practice should be more aimed at getting to know your body and preventing common tight spots from occurring, as these have the potential to limit your posture and mobility later on in life. Stretching generally feels good to do and can keep you moving better for longer.
Heather McNeil - Heather is a registered physiotherapist and fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Physiotherapy. Her practice - Feather Physiotherapy is located in Williams Lake, BC. When she is not in clinic you can find her on her yoga mat, out checking cows, or curled up by the fire with her cat and a good book.