Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, but you have to do it regularly to reap the benefits. Although there’s no definitive research showing stretching reduces the risk of injury, it helps reduce muscle tightness and enhances flexibility. When your muscles are flexible, it may help your performance, whether you’re lifting weights or running. In fact, a systematic review of multiple studies on stretching published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that stretching improved physical performance in 79% of the criteria they examined. That should be a compelling reason to stretch!
Unfortunately, most people don’t stretch often enough or do it correctly. Stretching incorrectly is less effective but may also be harmful to the health of your muscles and tendons. Here are some of the most common stretching mistakes many people make and how to correct them.
Stretching Mistakes #1: Not Stretching Regularly
Believe it or not, some people enter a workout without stretching at all. To these time-crunched folks, stretching is an afterthought and they want to get to the “meat” of the workout quickly. Don’t be shortsighted! To improve your own flexibility, stretching needs to be a consistent part of your routine. This is particularly true as your muscles become less flexible with age and ligaments lose their elasticity and become stiffer.
Stretching Mistakes #2: Static Stretching Before a Workout
Let’s differentiate between static and dynamic stretches. Static stretching is where you lengthen a muscle and hold the lengthened position for up to 60 seconds. In contrast, dynamic stretching is where you lengthen the muscle, but you only hold the stretch for a few seconds but keep repeating it. Dynamic stretching is very similar to the movements you do when you warm up – arms swings, leg kicks, dynamic, air squats, etc. Dynamic stretches are often sports specific and designed to mimic the movements associated with a particular sport.
Both forms of stretching have their place, but static stretching before a workout isn’t recommended. The consensus is that stretching and applying stress to cold muscles may actually increase the risk of injury. The proper time to static stretch is after your muscles are warm. To get them warm, you need a light warm-up and dynamic stretching. This might include 5 to 10 minutes of light, dynamic, whole body exercises, such as jogging in place, jumping jacks, kicks, high knees, butt kicks, punches, arms swings, etc. These movements all increase blood flow to the muscles you’ll be training. This makes the muscles more pliable and receptive to training and any static stretches you do afterward.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? When you warm up your muscles and their temperature goes up, nerve transmission to your muscles increases slightly. This helps your muscles work more efficiently. What do many magazines and books tell you to do as soon as you wake up? Stretch, of course. But, even when you stretch in the morning, do a warm-up first by walking around and moving all of your muscles dynamically to increase blood flow. Cold muscles need to warm up before lengthening them.
Stretching Mistakes #3: Stretching Injured Muscles
What advice do you often hear after injuring a muscle? You might be told to stretch it. However, stretching a muscle that’s already injured can injure it further, especially if you do deep stretches or hold the stretch too long. Wait until your muscles are on the mend before starting an aggressive stretching program. It’s always a good idea to get a consultation with a physician or physical therapist after an injury and follow their instructions.
Stretching Mistakes #4: Bouncing When You Stretch
At one time, it was common for people to do ballistic stretching. This is where your body bounces up and down during a stretch. You might have memories of gym class where your gym teacher told you to touch your toes and bounce up and down or you may have done bouncing lunges where you get into a lunge position and bob up and down. Some coaches still use ballistic stretching, but don’t do it without supervision. If you do it improperly and bounce with too much force, you can tear a muscle. The risk-to-reward ratio is too high for this type of stretching. Stick to dynamic stretching before a workout and static stretching afterward.
Stretching Mistakes #5: Stretching to the Point of Discomfort
There’s a common misconception that you should stretch to the point of discomfort to fully lengthen a muscle. But, stretching should never be tender or painful. When you stretch properly, you should feel a slight tension, but it should be a comfortable sense of tension and not painful. You won’t get more benefits by stretching a muscle to the point of discomfort, you’ll only increase the risk of injuring the muscle.
How long should you hold a stretch? If you’re static stretching prior to a workout, holding a stretch for 60 seconds or longer can modestly impair muscle strength and power. That’s why you should avoid static stretching prior to a workout. Instead, focus on dynamic stretching movements, like leg swings, leg raises, arm swings, etc., that you perform 10 or 12 times in a fluid manner. These are very similar to what you do during a warm-up. Save the static stretching for after your workout is over. Even then, you don’t necessarily have to hold a stretch for 60 seconds. Holding it for 30 seconds without bouncing is sufficient.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the most common mistakes people make when they stretch and are aware of the limitations of stretching. You have to do it consistently, and, even then, it may or may not lower your risk of injury, although it may improve performance. Also, don’t expect it to reduce muscle soreness after a workout (DOMS), as there’s no evidence that it does. Yet, it’s still important to stretch. In fact, stretching is essential for everyone, even if you don’t have tight muscles. Don’t neglect this important aspect of your workout – but make sure you’re doing it properly!
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Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb; 7(1): 109–119.
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OrthoInfo.com. “Effects of Aging”
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