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Should you stretch?
For as long as I have been exercising, there has been a debate about whether you should stretch.
The debate looks at stretching before exercise, stretching after exercise, and different types of stretching such as static and dynamic.
Those against it argue that stretching before exercise does not appear to increase performance and can even lead to damage. Stretching after exercise is also shown not to improve recovery. These are focused mainly on static stretching, leaning into the stretch and then holding it for a certain amount of time.
Yoga and pilates enthusiasts will be crying out at this point. Flexibility is so much more than better immediate performance! They focus on the increased and extended mobility which makes life a whole lot easier when you get older.
So what should you do? Well, I'm with Winnie The Pooh on this. Everyone needs to do some stretching, if only to be able to maintain the range of motion you already have.
However, the non-stretches have made some valid points.
When Not To Stretch:
If you stretch incorrectly, push too far or do it at the wrong times then you will cause damage and get none of the benefit. Anyone that has overstretched their hamstring and been unable to walk properly the next day will tell you that. It can take weeks to slowly get yourself back to where you were.
The answer (beyond the: don't be an idiot, stop if it hurts) lies in matching your timing to your type.
A lot of people like to stretch as part of their warm up before exercise. This can often be the time when people do the most damage.
You should never try to stretch your muscles while they are cold.
Before exercise, what you are trying to achieve is to warm up the muscle and work it up to the range of movement it will be using during the session. Therefore, doing static stretching is not the most beneficial method as it cools you down and isn't focused on the type of movements made during the workout.
The baby you want is 'dynamic stretching'. This is basically stretching by moving the muscles through their range of motion (dynamic in that you keep them moving).
For example, in rowing it is necessary to have good hamstring flexibility in order to get the proper body positioning. However, instead of sitting down and stretching out the hamstring before sessions, which cools you down etc., dynamic stretching involve swinging the leg forward and up, letting it swing back down, before trying to swing it just a little bit further. Sort of like you were doing the cancan (just don't go too far!) This warms up the muscle, and gently stretches it at the same time.
Before exercising, use body movement to slowly stretch out the muscles you are going to be using.
After working out is a great time to work on your flexibility as your muscles will already be warm. Further, if you have been doing any strength work (weights, sprinting, whatever) that has been making the muscles contract, you should take the time to lengthen them back out. This might not affect your performance tomorrow, or the day after, but it will prevent injuries later on down the track (and stop you feeling like one of the body builders that can't even turn enough to wipe their own butt, you know what I mean.)
This is the time that you can use static stretching. However, remember: gaining flexibility is a long term project, not something to be done in a single session. If you stretch too far, you are only going to cause damage. A slight stretch is all you need.
The secret to increasing flexibility is frequency not duration.
This was one of the key things I learnt at my health retreat, that taking 10 minutes twice a day to stretch instead of doing an hour long session once a week has a lot more benefits.
An easy way to remember how much to stretch is the Rule of 3: 3 times for 30 seconds is what you want to aim for, as often as you can.
So in conclusion: yes you do want to stretch, your 90 year old self will thank you for it. Just be appropriate and don't push too hard.
Want to learn more about stretching? Check out my next post on a Beginner's Guide To The Seven Types of Stretching.