Why Do We Stretch?


Stretching at The Ranch

The first thing most animals do when they begin to move is stretch. A dog or cat will stand up and begin to manipulate their body in all directions. It’s their instinct.

When we get up, we don’t always stretch. As a society, most of us spend all day sitting, not using our bodies very much. This causes our muscles to shorten, for a buildup of “fuzz” between our tissues to develop and our range of motion (ROM) to decrease.[1] The stresses life produces can also increase our muscle tension, typically in the neck and shoulder area. We may always carry our heavy purse in one hand or sit with one leg crossed, creating imbalances in our muscular system. As we age, the tightness and “fuzz” builds up reducing our ability to move as free as we wish.  

Taking the time each day to stretch can help alleviate many of these symptoms. Taking each joint through a full ROM, loosens up our muscles and connective tissue keeping us limber. Blood flow to our joints and muscles increases, providing more nutrients to our muscles and reducing waste product build up. Our minds can become more relaxed, reducing stress and alleviating the associated tension, helping to reduce blood pressure. We can stand taller with better posture, especially if we stretch our chest and hip muscles. Body soreness and lower back pain can be alleviated. We can prevent injuries by keeping our joints and muscles supple, allowing them to be ready for any activity we can ask of them.[2]

Each of us has a natural ability for increasing our flexibility. Some of us struggle to touch our toes with a regular stretching routine, while others can easily move into splits without stretching. Those of us who are naturally tighter, should not get discouraged and will still find huge benefits stretching every day. Studies have shown increased flexibility, strength, endurance and power by stretching 40 minutes, 3 times a week for 10 weeks.[3]

There are a variety of different ways to stretch. Most of us use static stretching by holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds. Holding the stretch longer may seem like it will help us become more limber, it hasn’t been proved to make a noticeable difference in the gain of ROM.[4] Be aware that studies have been demonstrating an increase of injuries associated with stretching statically before working out. It’s best to stretch in this manner after a workout for the best results.[5]

Passive stretching, uses a strap or the assistance of another person to help. Bouncing into a stretch is ballistic stretching and not strongly recommended, as injuries are more likely.  PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) is most likely used for rehabilitation and uses a combination of contracting and lengthening muscles. Maybe you’ve seen athletes off to the side of a field skipping, doing grape vines or kicking their heels. This dynamic stretching is keeping their muscles warm and preparing their bodies for the movements they will be doing soon.  If you’ve used a foam roller, you have used self-myofascial release

Taking the time to stretch regularly is the best thing we can do for ourselves. We may all be guilty of thinking that it is okay to skip, but it’s not. Take a few minutes in the morning to do a few stretches and a few after a workout. It’ll keep us standing tall and move well for the rest of our lives. 

How do you incorporate stretching into your exercise routine?

Additional Reading:
Michael Alter, Science of Flexibility
Tony Leyland, Flexibility

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