For cavemen, the physical nature of everyday life required them to move in ways that stretched their muscles. They probably stretched in ways like animals such as a cat would.
More recently, the importance of stretching before workouts has become a controversial topic. Several studies have come out questioning the benefit of stretching before a workout, with some even showing a correlation between stretching and an increased risk of injury.
So which is it? Is stretching a necessary and beneficial part of a well-rounded fitness program, or is it poor use of your precious workout time?
It’s All about Timing
It’s true that stretching cold muscles can lead to an increased risk of injury. It’s also true that tight muscles and joints can lead to imbalances that can cause injuries to occur.
However, stretching after the muscles are thoroughly warmed up, ideally after your workout, definitely leads to an increased range of motion around the joints in question. There is also anecdotal evidence that stretching after a workout helps promote recovery.
How to Stretch Properly
Here are three keys to designing a stretching program that is safe and effective.
1. Stretch after your workout rather than before. A good stretching routine performed after a workout increases your range of motion, may help your recovery, feels good, and helps your body wind down and prepare for a return to normal activities.
2. The research shows that a single stretch of each major muscle group for 15 to 30 seconds is sufficient to produce significant gains in your range of motion around the affected joints. There’s no need to stretch for hours on end, a brief 5 or 10-minute routine is sufficient.
3. Never stretch to the point of pain. Stretch until you begin to feel some resistance and then maintain it. You’ll likely find that after a few seconds of holding a stretch that you can stretch a bit father without pain. Continue to stretch up to the point of discomfort but not beyond. Stretching far enough to make it painful may lead to injury and can actually cause the muscles to tighten as a protective reflex and ultimately reduce your flexibility.
Finally, it’s important to stretch all of your major muscle groups, not just the ones you primarily use in your workouts. Our cavemen ancestors had to be all around, full body athletes just to get through the day, and this is the kind of fitness we should all strive to reach.
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