The Importance of Stretching
Most of us who have partaken in any type of consistent athletic activity or exercise have been conditioned since we were young that we need to warm up and stretch before our activity begins, as well as cool down with stretching after our session ends. However, is it really necessary to take the time to do so every session? The answer is yes, and you can bet I’m going to tell you why.
The number one reason that stretching is a necessity is to prevent injury. That alone should be enough reason for each and every one of us to remember to stretch, because taking the few minutes to stretch is better than missing days, weeks, or even months of the sports or exercises you love due to muscular injury.
All of us have been there. We show up late to our weekend pickup game and jump right in without stretching. After an intense game of vigorous effort, we head home and crash on the couch to relax. The next day, we wake up and realize it’s going to be a disastrous day, because our legs feel like lead and even the smallest activity like putting on socks and shoes is done with extreme effort and concentration. Had we simply taken the time to stretch we could have avoided some of this muscle soreness.
Now I can’t just tell you that injuries and soreness can be prevented without going into the detail of how we should stretch both before and after our exercise sessions. Let’s start with the before.
Before we can even stretch it’s important to warm up. Warming up raises the temperature in your body, including your muscles, to prepare them for the activity that is about to ensue. Additionally, it increases your heart rate and gets oxygen into the muscles to ready the body to use more energy. Warming up should essentially be the same activity you’re about to partake in at a much lower scale.
For example, if you’re about to play soccer, you know you’ll not only be running, but kicking and dribbling as well. Warming up could be a light jog and some light passing with a partner.
If you’re about to hit arms at the gym, do some arm circles to get the blood flow into the arms. Then grab some 5 lb weights and do some curls and tricep extensions to get a little more blood flow into the muscles you’re about to use.
Once you’ve warmed up it is time to stretch. It’s important to stretch after the warm up period, because stretching cold muscles can lead to injury as well. Personally, I align myself with those that believe in dynamic stretching for pre-activity. This means that instead of standing still and stretching you stretch while moving. Instead of touching your toes for 20 seconds to stretch hamstrings, you do a walk or slow jog while raising your knees up high with each step. Instead of pulling your foot behind your backside to stretch your quads, you do another slow jog while kicking your heel to your backside with each step.
There are tons of dynamic stretches that can be done for lower body. It is significantly easier to look up videos for each instead of reading them, so I’ll list a few below that you can look up to see exactly how they’re done.
-opening the gates
-closing the gates
Doing all of the above only takes a couple minutes and stretches the entire lower body, if that is what you’re working on. As far as upper body the only real dynamic stretching consists of some variations of arm circles and arm swings. If you have a stretching stick (many gyms have PVC piping that can be used as a stretching stick, you can go through stretches with that or exercise bands to warm up the chest or the back.
Once the warm up and stretching is completed, you’re ready to start your activity with a minimized risk of injury. Obviously not all injury is prevented by stretching, but properly warmed muscles can certainly allow greater ranges of motion and more flexibility with higher weight.
During your workout, lactic acid builds within your muscles. This leads to muscle soreness. Soreness is not only inconvenient and uncomfortable, but in the world of fitness it is a huge reason that individuals will skip exercises. If you’re extremely sore you may think that today’s workout will be too difficult and/or ineffective and decide to forego it.
Stretching can help prevent this! Now, let’s be clear. I’m not saying that stretching will eliminate all soreness and have you feeling as good as new the next day. Sometimes we partake in an intense workout and soreness is inevitable. However, I am saying that stretching will leave you in a better physical condition than no stretching at all.
Contrary to the warm up stretching, static stretching is best for post workout activity. Static stretching is stretching done essentially in place without movement. This allows a deep stretch for muscles that are already plenty warmed up. Stretching in this manner also provides a strong mind-body connection, and helps you and your muscles to relax and calm down. Through stretching you can discover which muscles have been worked hard and feel for aches that may exist after an exercise session. You can stretch these muscles a bit more to make sure that they recover well.
Each stretch should be held for 15-25 seconds. Again, if you are unfamiliar with the various stretches that can be done with each bodypart, I would suggest looking them up online by muscle group. Be sure to stretch all of the muscles you utilize during an exercise or athletic session. If you do, soreness and stiffness will certainly be minimized when you wake up the next day.
Don’t Forget to Stretch!
Remember, stretching is not something you should take lightly. Decreasing the likelihood for injury is exceedingly important for athletes, runners, and lifters. Nobody wants to have to sit out for extended periods of time after pulling a muscle when the injury could have been prevented by properly stretching.
Warm up with dynamic stretching to get the muscles ready for your exercise. Cool down with deep, static stretching to prepare your body for recovery. Do those and you should be able to continually exercise without injury or soreness holding you back.