We all have different requirements when it comes to stretching, 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 are ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’.
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, elevate the 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 benefit from more time spent stretching.
That said, it is probably true to say that there are times where we actually over stretch. In some cases, stretching might be best avoided – excessive stretching can actually do more harm than good. You should avoid stretching hypermobile joints, nor through pain or injury for example.
Muscles very often get tight for a reason and an intensive stretch routine might be the answer to this ‘problem’. Tight hamstrings often mean weak glutes (backside muscles) for example – typically the hamstrings become more active, or tightened, to help stabilize the pelvis where your posterior muscles fall short.
Being that stretching can temporarily destabilise a joint, hamstring stretches might not be a good idea in this case, 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, as the body has cleverly ‘tightened up’ the chest and underarm muscles to stabilise 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 stretching here will more than likely 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 keep the wheel robust enough to handle the terrain we want to ride it over.
In other words, it makes sense to stretch what is tight and strengthen what is weak to bring 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.