The truth is that while the benefits of proper stretching are great – increased motion, less pain, less stress – doing it wrong can be useless at best and cause an injury at worst.
Find out why to stretch and how to do it correctly with our guide
Why stretch? Your muscles are tight
Unless you regularly bend yourself into a pretzel shape at a yoga class, you may not realise just how inflexible you’ve become. “As people age there’s a tendency towards a tightening of muscles,” says personal fitness trainer Ray Klerck (www.rayklerck.com). “Postural habits can cause muscles to become so tight that they may restrict movement. So regular stretching – especially after exercise – can help to loosen those muscles.”
Why stretch? It boosts circulation
Regular stretching also helps boost circulation to your muscles and joints. “Every time you stretch you are not just hitting your muscles but other soft tissue too,” says personal trainer and fitness app developer, Greg Brookes (www.gbpersonaltraining.com). “Fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds muscles, blood vessels and nerves also gets stretched.”
Why stretch? You’re stressed
A drive in rush-hour traffic is enough to cause your shoulders to bunch up so tight that later on you suffer with a headache. “That’s because the tension in your shoulder muscles can move up your neck and constrict bloodflow,” says Klerck. “The key is to avoid those muscles getting so tense but if you can’t, the next best thing is to try and relax them afterwards with some stretches.”
How to stretch
"Stretching technique needs to be adjusted according to your age and health," says Klerck. "If you're over 60, for example, you're likely not as good at balancing as you once were, so that needs to be taken into account. Similarly, you're more likely to have one of the following illnesses that should also be taken into account: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or osteoporosis, all of which could cause problems if you put your bones and joints under excessive stress or pressure."
If you have osteoarthritis: "Avoid stretches that put pressure on your joints – anything that requires you to have straight legs will stress your knee joints, for example. Similarly, another popular stretch that involves positioning yourself in a 'proposal position' (on one knee), should be avoided for the same reason. Instead, do stretches in a seated or lying position."
If you have rheumatoid arthritis. "When your tendons are inflamed avoid any stretching. At other times stretch carefully and stop doing those stretches if you feel any pain during or afterwards.
If you have osteoporosis: "Steer clear of stretches that place stress on bones, such as lunge- or squat-based stretches, where the hips and knees are put under strain. Instead, stretch with your legs only hip-width apart or, preferably, sitting or lying down."
If you're not as strong or able to balance as well as you used to:
"Stretching is still very important but rather than trying to touch your toes from a standing position, do it sitting down, for example.
Just make sure that whatever stretch you do is done in a stable position."
If your muscles have different needs
“We are all unique and have different length tensions throughout the body,” says Brookes. There is no “one size fits all” stretching programme. Just like tuning a musical instrument we must only address the strings that need adjustment.” So don’t stretch if it feels painful and build up the amount of time you spend stretching slowly, so you don’t over-extend yourself.
And if you have any injuries take those into account, too. “Knots, adhesions and scar tissue leave your soft tissue weak and vulnerable,” says Brookes. “Putting poor quality soft tissue under strain through stretching can cause further damage.
Think about stretching an elastic band with a knot tied in the centre, the knot gets tighter and produces weak breaking points. Spending time addressing your soft tissue through massage and foam rolling (using a foam roller or tube to massage muscles) will go a long way to improving it quality.”
“Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and this causes the body to relax,” says Brookes. “When the body is relaxed it lets go of muscle tension. When you stretch you can use the breath to increase your stretching range of movement. As you slowly move into the stretch take a deep and long breath out and feel your tension release, do not fight it. As you breathe in, come out of the stretch slightly and then return into the stretch as you breath out again.”
Stretch every three days for ten minutes, and after every exercise session. Over time your muscles will be more relaxed even when you're at rest.
“Stretching can be done at anytime but stretching when the body is relaxed is the most effective time for correcting muscle tissue length,” says Brookes. “Stretching in the evening is best.”
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