I love stretching. The feeling of loosening a tight muscle that reduces pain or stiffness is such a relief.
But what kind of stretches are you doing? Are you doing a long hold until your muscle seems to bend to your will? Are you stretching with constant movement? Is it the right kind for your body and your goals?
Steve Gonser, PT, DPT, owner of Buffalo Rehab Group owner and physical therapist Steve Gonser, has some answers.
“When you move or do anything in your day-to-day life, it requires range of motion from your joints. The most important part of a stretching routine is to figure out what needs to be stretched and the best way to do that,” says Gonser.
Stretching can be very beneficial to feel better and prevent injury.
“If you are limited in certain areas, it will create compensations in other areas,” says Gonser.
Balancing it out with the right amount and kind of stretching is key.
What kind of stretching is right for me?
You have probably done both types of stretching, maybe without even realizing it. Have you done a stretch touching your toes or holding an arm across your body? When getting ready for sports, did you warm up with arm circles or neck rolls? That is the most basic difference between static and dynamic stretching.
Static stretching involves lengthening a muscle or tendon and holding it for a period of time, say, 30-60 seconds. Examples of static stretching include holding both arms straight behind your back to stretch your chest and biceps, holding your ear to your shoulder to stretch your neck or sitting on the floor and touching your toes.
Dynamic stretching is when you take a muscle and tendon to a lengthened position then working on and off to that lengthened position. You might only hold the stretch for 1-3 seconds and repeat. Squats, butt kickers or leg swings are examples of dynamic stretching.
“When considering a static versus dynamic stretching program, it is worth knowing the end goal. Typically, what you’ll see with static stretching is that the prolonged holds are great for lengthening range of motion in stiff areas, whereas dynamic stretching is a little bit better for warm-up and cool-downs,” says Gonser.
It is important to note that stretching is important for everyone at any age. It improves mobility and reduces the chances of injury.
Is one better than another?
“The most common form of stretching we would provide to patients or the general public would be dynamic stretching. It gets them moving. It engages certain areas of their body and treats the muscle and tendons like they use them in real life, so it carries over a little better,” Gonser says. “Dynamic stretching can help with mobility. It can help people feel looser. It is a great way to warm up and cool down at the start of the day, the end of the day, or before and after exercise.”
Stretching to prevent injury
As with anything, too much stretching can be harmful.
“Too much flexibility is just as much of a problem as not enough flexibility. As a matter of fact, sometimes it can even be more detrimental than being too tight. You don’t want to stretch the wrong areas or provide too much mobility to a certain area because that can be an issue too and cause injury. There’s a balance between having mobility and stability,” says Gonser.
That’s why it is critical that stretching is just one part of a balanced routine.
“The most important thing when developing a stretching program is marrying the flexibility side with the strength side. Too often, people think they just need to stretch when actually they need to stretch and strengthen. It is always important to include strength training or flexibility training with exercises that include strength in them,” he says.
For my physical therapy routines, I usually warm up with a 10-minute ride on a stationary bike. Then, I do various dynamic stretches for the calf, hips and foot. That is usually followed by dynamic stretching and strength exercises, like step-ups, bridges with a resistance band or squats on a bosu ball while holding a weighted medicine ball. After incorporating that strength training with the stretching, I was surprised at how quickly I noticed a difference in how I moved and how my body felt.