Stretching

Are you stretching enough?

Warming up and cooling down before and after workouts may feel tedious, but an important habit to to look after your body and get the most from your training.

When you warm up, you’re getting your body ready to work out by increasing your internal body heat – and cool downs do the opposite. In both of them, you’ll do a range of movements as well as dynamic and static stretches. (Dynamic stretching is based on movement, and static stretching involves moving a joint and holding it still).

All of our bodies are different – some of us have tighter muscles, some are more flexible than others. Some people’s muscles may be loosened up through a quick 5-minute warm-up and cool-down, while others might need to spend a bit more time stretching to loosen their muscles.

Uzo Ehiogu – who works with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy – is an NHS physiotherapist, with expertise in sport and rehabilitation. “If it feels right, it probably needs to be stretched – if it doesn’t feel restricted, it’s probably okay – that’s the one thing I tell my clients,” says Uzo.

So how often should we be stretching, how should we do it, and what do we need to know before we do?

Why do we need to stretch?

Stretching tight muscles can help us improve our mobility and flexibility – two things that are slightly different, but related.

Mobility is the total range of motion available at a joint, and it can be influenced by lots of different factors. Flexibility refers to the soft tissues which can either increase or reduce the range of motion at a joint

So, what’s the aim of a stretch? “We want joints to move through the fullest range of motion so that someone can achieve a particular task,” says Uzo.

For example, if you play tennis, there are certain body shapes you’ll want to make (i.e. think of when you’re doing a serve!). Now imagine if all those joints had a reduced range of motion and were tight – your ability to serve would be compromised. Similarly to a runner, for example – when we run, our knee and hips need to be able to extend. If our knees are bent because our hamstrings are tight, running can become quite inefficient and hard work.

Now it’s easier to see how stretching – increasing the mobility and flexibility of our joints – can benefit the movement and exercise we do. Which brings us back to Uzo’s comment: if it feels right, stretch it. If a position you sit or move feels slightly uncomfortable, stretch it.

What happens when we stretch?

“Flexibility is a continuum,” says Uzo. There are people who are super tight, and those who are super mobile. A lot of this comes from genetics, he says, but some is acquired due to the type of activity we do.

We don’t know the full causes of inflexibility. “For years, it’s been looked at it from a mechanical perspective, which means when you stretch, you’re stretching the bonds within the muscle and its associated tissues,” he says. “That’s the traditional view from the 80s and 90s.”

However, now it seems to be focused more around our nervous systems. Everyone has a capacity to increase flexibility, but there is a “neurological tolerance” for that stretch – i.e. your nervous system holds you back from stretching any futher because it hurts.

When you’re doing a stretch for the first time, you may get to the point where it starts hurting – pain receptors fire off, send a message to the brain of “hey, this hurts”, and so we stop. “Over time, however,” says Uzo, “If you continue to stretch, as you slowly move into that, your stretch tolerance increases, and your nervous system gets used to it.”

The longer you stretch, the more likely your tissue will change and improve flexibility and mobility.

Tips for stretching

It’s hard to give hard and fast rules about which stretches are best for you – because everyone’s bodies are different. Although, common muscles that become tight, says Uzo, are hip flexors, quadriceps, and calves – so it might be worth seeing if these feel tight to you.

But there are three things everyone should know about stretching, says Uzo.

The stretch needs to be long To achieve the relaxation of the nervous system and increase flexibility, the stretch needs to be 30 seconds and above – ”10 secs isn’t long enough,” he says. To maintain flexibility, you can do less, but to develop it, you can go up to 2 minutes.

You need tissues to be warm If you’re stretching out tight muscles, warm up the tissues by doing some cardio, like sitting on a bike, or doing a bit of jogging to help warm them up. It might be worth spending 15 minutes after a workout going into slow, long stretches – “that can be helpful,’ says Uzo.

You should try to be consistent Uzo recommends doing 30-90 seconds stretches, in 2-3 sets, 3-4 times a week. Keeping regularity to it is important if you want to see results.

A great place to start would be to do a mobility session – during the exercises, you will be able to feel which muscles or positions feel tighter and more uncomfortable than others. It’s these muscles you may want to focus on moving forward.

Get started with one of the below:

This article was written by The Body Coach content team.

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