When it comes to stretching and flexibility, there are a lot of questions that come up that I am asked regularly. When should I stretch? How often? How long? What should I feel? What muscles should I stretch? I’ll break down these questions below for you with the best of my abilities, however just know that there are no specific rules or guidelines for stretching.
When should I stretch?
Often times there is mixed information out there regarding the timing of stretching. It tends to be MOST effective after the muscles are already warm. That does not mean you have to save your stretching for the end of your workout, but after a warm up is usually best. If you do a 5-15 minute warm up on a bike, rower, treadmill, elliptical, etc that is sufficient enough to warm up and improve the effects of stretching. If you are about to work out you may want to assess the flexibility required for the movements you are going to perform. For example: if you are about to do squats you need pretty decent ankle flexibility otherwise you will compensate with your knees, feet, and hips. So it might be a good idea to stretch your ankles and calves before doing this movement to limit the compensations. Alternatively stretching can weaken muscles. If you are a runner who has experiences a hip flexor injury or groin injury, you wouldn’t want to stretch that out prior to running. It would be better to stretch it out after running as a form of treatment for pain.
How often should I stretch?
This is where there is a gray area in terms of research, but here is what I tell my patients:
Think of your muscles like a rubber band. Your muscles have elastic properties which is similar to a rubber band, you can stretch it and it returns to its original shape. This allows your muscles to move without tearing. Now let’s say your muscle is very tight and you need to stretch it out. If you take a rubber band and stretch it and hold it for 20-60 seconds and let it go, it will snap back to its original position. Now if you take that same rubber band and hold it in a stretched position for a month it will probably not return to its original length. If you want to gain flexibility or what we call extensibility, you need to stretch over a long period of time. Hold a stretch 1 minute once a day will not get you the flexibility you need. But holding that stretch 1 minute 3-5 times a day over multiple days will improve your flexibility.
How long should I stretch for?
There is no rule on how long to hold a stretch for, but we do know that it needs to be held at least 20 seconds. I usually suggest 30-60 seconds at a time because people tend to count fast and longer is always better for stretching. I like to use the rule of 3’s because it’s easy to remember: 30 second hold, 3 repetitions, 3 times per day. Essentially you want to hold the stretch long enough so that you improve the length of the muscles. Anything under 20 will not allow for any flexibility. When a muscle is being stretched, there tends to be a little bit of guarding. What that means is that the muscle is resisting the stretch initially to protect itself but once you hold the stretch, the muscle will slowly start to relax and this is when stretching becomes effective.
What should I feel when I am stretching?
Stretching is certainly not comfortable and can be a little painful. What I tell my patients is that stretching should be uncomfortable but tolerable. There should be a pulling sensation but not a sharp pain. If you aren’t able to hold the stretch at least 30 seconds then you have probably pushed past the limit. If it is painful your muscles will begin to guard again (refer to the paragraph above for definition) and you will no longer be benefitting from the stretch. When you are done stretching, there should NOT be pain in the muscle. If there is it could mean that you stretched too far. You should feel pretty good when you are done stretching.
What muscles should I stretch?
You would think this would be an easy answer- stretch the muscles that are tight. Often enough people don’t know which muscles are tight on them unless they have been assessed by a healthcare professional. I have attached a video below of the muscles I like to focus on when stretching. This video is from the summer when the weather was much nicer- now my balcony is covered in a few inches in snow! Follow along below as each position is held for 30-60 seconds and addresses all the commonly tight muscles I find in my patients. Remember: if any of these positions are painful, try to modify by not going as deep into the stretch. If it is still painful then do not perform that movement. If you have questions, please feel free to comment below or reach out to me.