Fitness

Do You Really Need to Stretch?

The final word—plus six easy stretches to try.

A dog stretching to illustrate a piece on whether or not you really need to stretch

(Photo: iStock)

Is stretching necessary?

It’s not mandatory but it’s a good way to maintain efficient, discomfort-free movement, says David Frost, Director of the Master of Professional Kinesiology Program at the University of Toronto.

If so, it’s probably wise to consider the acknowledged benefits of stretching and whether or not they can help you.

Most fitness experts agree that stretching muscles helps maintain and promote a pain-free range of motion in the joints. When your muscles are flexible, your joints move as they should and the structures that surround them get the proper blood flow, fluid and nutrients that keep them healthy.

Maintaining your range of motion is important because when you move efficiently and with good form, you’re less likely to damage tissues and experience injury. But it also improves the ability to function in your day-to-day activity, especially as you age.

“We stretch not just for exercise but to maintain function for life,” says Frost. “[Stretching] really is about giving yourself sufficient range of motion so you can do things like run after your kids or carry groceries at a moment’s notice.”

How often should you stretch?

The American College of Sports Medicine identifies flexibility and range of motion as an aspect of overall health and fitness and suggests people stretch all major muscle groups (shoulders, quads, hamstrings, hips, back, chest) at least two to three times a week.

How long should you stretch?

The ACSM says that “you should spend a total of 60 seconds on each stretching exercise. So, if you can hold a particular stretch for 15 seconds, repeating it three more times would be ideal. If you can hold the stretch for 20 seconds, two more repetitions would do the trick.”

What are the different types of stretching?

There are a few different types of stretching. Two of the most common are static stretching and dynamic stretching.

Static stretching

Static stretching is the classic, and most accessible, approach in which, you stand, stretch or lie down and lengthen a muscle to the point of stretching for a short period of time.

Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching adds movement to the mix. Some examples of dynamic stretches are walking lunges, torso twists and leg swings.

What parts of your body benefit most from stretching?

Shoulders, hips and ankle joints suffer the most neglect, says Frost, so maintaining flexibility in the muscle tissues that surround them is one way to get the blood flowing and prevent the kind of imbalances that may lead to pain or injury.

There are psychological benefits to stretching, too.

“Sometimes people do it before [exercise] to put themselves in the right mental state. It becomes part of a routine that people integrate into whatever the activity is. Or if it’s at the end of a workout, it helps them kind of calm down, or re-centre before they go back to work or home.”

Cassie Day, a personal trainer, wellness coach and founder of All Day Fit in Toronto, says stretching can also help create better body awareness.

“Static stretching creates an educational awareness opportunity of our own bodies. Ask yourself ‘where is this tightness coming from?’. The answer could be movement habits, postural habits, emotional stress, trigger points, etc.”

Which type of stretching is right for me?

It depends on your goal.

There’s evidence to suggest dynamic stretching is better done before* you engage in exercise, especially if your goal is performance-related, like getting faster (it’s also linked to reducing risk of injury).

A dynamic stretching routine is a good active warm-up because it helps increase blood flow, warms muscles, and elevates the heart rate, says Frost. It may also improve your speed, balance and agility, prepping you for exercise. That said, dynamic stretching does require a decent amount of coordination, which not everyone has—if that’s the case, static stretching before a workout will still benefit your range of motion.

“At All Day Fit we focus on the ankle, hips, t-spine, shoulder and wrist,” says Day. “With extra focus on the hips and the shoulders as they are the utmost important for function, they also allow the spine and musculature association with the torso to function optimally.”

She says a good dynamic warm-up of those areas includes:

The classic yoga cat/cow stretch

Wrist circles, windmills

A deep squat to stretch your hamstrings

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Static stretching can lend itself to a cool down because it transitions you slowly out of vigorous movement while increasing flexibility, he says.

Day suggests ending your exertion with a static routine that includes:

A hip flexor stretch

A deep squat

Hamstring stretches

Laying on your back and breathing deeply just like in corpse pose at the end of a yoga class.

“Breathing can have a dramatic effect on reducing muscle stiffness.”

Sorry, I’m still not convinced

You don’t have to stretch, especially if you’re one of those people whose joints are working efficiently, and you haven’t damaged any muscle tissues over a lifetime of exercise. But it’s probably a good thing to do regardless, says Frost.

“I generally recommend stretching,” he says, “because it can help you maintain range of motion and therefore quality of life.” Who doesn’t want that?

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