We all have different requirements when it comes to stretching, which are determined largely by our adopted posture and the activities that we choose to engage in regularly. If you spend most of your day hunched over a desk, you are likely going to need to stretch your hips flexors for example.
There two main types of stretching that are commonly referred to: static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is where you hold a stretch position for several seconds before releasing. Dynamic stretching is where you move in and out of the stretch position, trying to increase the range each time. Both are useful, but at different times.
Dynamic stretching is typically used before we exercise, as part of a warm up. It helps to fire up the nervous system, bring blood to the muscles, elevated heart rate and generally helps prepare the body for movement. Static stretching is typically recommended after or separately to a workout as, although it is potentially superior for increasing flexibility, it tones down the nervous system and prepares the body to relax and release.
The foundation of any good exercise programme should be mobility and flexibility and most of us would undoubtedly benefit from more time spent stretching. That said, it is probably true to say that there are times where we actually over use stretching. In some cases, stretching might be best avoided and excessive stretching might actually be doing more harm than good. You should avoid stretching hypermobile joints, nor should you stretch through pain or injury.
Muscles very often get tight for a reason and an intensive stretch routine might not be the answer to this ‘problem’. Tight hamstrings often means weak glutes (backside muscles) for example, where the hamstrings become more active (tighten), to help stabilize the pelvis. Being that stretching can temporarily destabilize a joint, hamstring stretches might not be a good idea, unless we simultaneously strengthen our backside…
Muscles work in opposites and we have the same considerations at every joint. It is not uncommon to see people with underdeveloped back and shoulder muscles develop rounded shoulders, where body cleverly ‘tightens up’ the chest and underarm muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint for example. Again, simply stretching the tight muscles of the chest might not be the answer. The chest muscles have become more active to help prevent shoulder instability and randomly stretching in isolation is likely to increase the risk of injury.
Whilst most of us could probably stretch more, it might not be as simple as aimlessly pulling our heel to our backside after a run. Think of your body as a wheel and it’s different parts as the spokes. You need to keep the wheel in balance for it to roll efficiently, lengthening the short spokes, tightening the loose ones and making sure that in doing this we make sure that the wheel robust enough to handle the terrain that you want to ride it over.
In other words, it makes sense to stretch what is tight and strengthen what is weak, bringing the body into balance, rather than simply stretch because that is ‘what you should do’. Stretching is important, but it needs to be used according to your personal requirements. Do not stretch just for the sake of it.