Stretching: Focus on flexibility
You can stretch anytime, anywhere. Consider the
benefits of stretching, such as increased flexibility and circulation.
Then ready, set, stretch! By Mayo Clinic staff
You pound out a few miles on the treadmill. You work your way through a
series of strength training exercises. You even add some time on the
stationary bike for good measure - and you smile with satisfaction that
you made it through your workout. Nothing to do now but hit the shower.
Not so fast. Did you consider stretching those muscles that pulled you
through your invigorating workout? Understand why stretching matters -
and how to stretch correctly.
Benefits of stretching
Most aerobic and strength training programs inherently cause your
muscles to contract and flex. That's why regular stretching is a
powerful part of any exercise program. Consider this:
- Stretching increases flexibility.
Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as
lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus
become easier and less tiring.
- Stretching improves range of motion of your joints.
Good range of motion keeps you in better balance, which will help keep
you mobile and less prone to falls - and the related injuries -
especially as you age.
- Stretching improves circulation. Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Improved circulation can speed recovery after muscle injuries.
- Stretching can relieve stress. Stretching relaxes the tense muscles that often accompany stress.
Some studies indicate that stretching helps prevent athletic injuries
as well. However, this finding remains controversial. Other studies
don't support stretching as a way to prevent injury.
Ready, set, stretch!
- Target major muscle groups.
When you're stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back,
neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely
use at work or play.
- Warm up first. You may hurt
yourself if you stretch cold muscles. Warm up by walking while gently
pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five
to 10 minutes. Better yet, stretch after you exercise - when your
muscles are warm and more receptive to stretching.
- Pace yourself. It takes time
to lengthen tissues safely. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds,
then repeat on the other side. Do each stretch three or four times.
- Don't bounce. Bouncing as you
stretch can cause small tears in the muscle. These tears leave scar
tissue as the muscle heals, which tightens the muscle even further -
making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
- Focus on a pain-free stretch.
Expect to feel tension while you're stretching. If it hurts, you've
gone too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, then
hold the stretch.
- Relax and breathe freely. Don't hold your breath while you're stretching.
How often to stretch is up to you. As a general rule, stretch whenever
you exercise. If you don't exercise regularly, you might want to
stretch at least three times a week to maintain flexibility. If you
have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you
might want to stretch more often.
Know when to exercise caution
You can stretch anytime, anywhere - in your home, at work or when
you're traveling. If you have a chronic condition or an injury,
however, you may need to alter your approach to stretching. For
example, if you have a strained muscle, stretching it like usual may
cause further harm. Discuss with your doctor or physical therapist the
best way to stretch.
- Laskowski ER (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Nov. 5, 2008.
MP, et al. Injury prevention. In: McKeag DB, et al. ACSM's Primary Care
Sports Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott Williams &
- Shrier I. Does stretching help prevent
injuries? In: MacAuley D, et al. Evidence-based Sports Medicine. 2nd
ed. Malden, Mass.: BMJ Books/Blackwell Publishing; 2007:36.
- Woods K, et al. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Medicine. 2007;37:1089.
SB, et al. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic
review of the literature. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
- Beedle BB, et al. No difference in pre- and
postexercise stretching on flexibility. Journal of Strength and
Conditioning Research. 2007;21:780.
- 2008 physical activity
guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf. Accessed Dec. 15,
- How to improve your flexibility. National Institute on
Accessed Dec. 15, 2008.