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Stretching 101: Exploring the benefits of flexibility

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Stretching feels good. In fact, it can be downright irresistible in some cases. Picture this: you’ve just woken up after a long, restorative night of sleep – what’s the first thing you want to do?

If you’re like most people, that answer is clear: stretch! But why do you feel these urges, and what exactly happens at a physiological level when you stretch?

More importantly, how does stretching impact your flexibility, mobility, and overall performance? Let’s dive into all things stretching and its implications for everyday life and fitness.

Why do we stretch?

The urge to stretch is deeply ingrained in your physiology, a primal response to various stimuli. Whether it's after sitting, experiencing fatigue, or feeling tension in our muscles, stretching helps to alleviate discomfort and restore balance to your body.

Whether you've been stuck at your desk for hours or sitting through a long commute, extended periods of inactivity can cause muscle stiffness and tension due to decreased blood flow and oxygen supply.

Stretching stimulates blood flow to the muscles, delivering oxygen and essential nutrients while removing metabolic waste products. Therefore, it alleviates stiffness and tension. It also triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain-relieving chemicals, promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels.

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What happens when you stretch?

Stretching triggers physiological responses in the body, resulting in several benefits for muscle function and overall well-being. When you stretch, muscle fibers go through stages of elongation and relaxation, allowing for an increased range of motion.

Stretching elongates muscles by applying force, causing individual muscle fibers to lengthen and realign. Connective tissues, surrounding the muscles, such as tendons and fascia, become more pliable during stretching, further improving flexibility and mobility.

As the muscles stretch and relax, they also stimulate proprioceptors. Proprioceptors are sensory receptors that provide feedback to the brain about the body's position and movement. This improved proprioception heightens body awareness and coordination, resulting in better movement patterns and motor control.

Flexibility vs. mobility

While they may seem similar, it’s important to distinguish between flexibility and mobility, as they represent different aspects of physical function.

Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen without being forced. It's mostly concerned with the elasticity of muscles and their associated connective tissues.

Mobility, on the other hand, refers to the joint's active ability to move through a full range of motion, incorporating both flexibility and motor control.

While flexibility primarily involves the passive properties of muscles and connective tissues, mobility entails dynamic movement patterns and the coordinated action of muscles surrounding a joint.

But let’s be clear, it’s not an “either, or” situation – improving both will lead to better performance.

The importance of flexibility and mobility in performance
Athletes rely on flexibility and mobility to achieve proper body alignment, execute complex movements with precision, and recover effectively between training sessions. This dynamic duo also helps improve movement efficiency, prevent injuries, and boost overall performance.

And if the above benefits aren’t enough to convince you, flexibility and mobility also contribute to better posture, joint health, and overall functional movement patterns, improving quality of life and reducing the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.1

Improving your flexibility and mobility are simple, yet effective ways to enhance your movements and perform at your best.

Different types of stretching

Now that we’ve covered all the juicy benefits of stretching, let’s break down some of the more common types of stretching.

Static Stretching
Holding a stretch position for a prolonged period (usually 15-60 seconds) without movement.

  • Benefits: Increases muscle length and flexibility and promotes relaxation.
  • Disadvantages: May temporarily reduce muscle strength and power if performed before intense physical activity.
  • Example: Sit on the floor and reach for your toes. Hold the position for 30 seconds without bouncing.

Dynamic Stretching
Taking the body through a series of controlled, rhythmic movements that mimic the activity being performed.2

  • Benefits: Improves joint mobility, enhances muscle activation and coordination, and prepares the body for dynamic movements.
  • Disadvantages: Less effective for increasing muscle length compared to static stretching.
  • Example: Swing one leg forward and backward in a controlled motion while gradually increasing the range of motion to warm up the hip flexors and hamstrings.

Passive Stretching
Applying external force (gravity, a partner, or a stretching device) to stretch the muscle without active muscle engagement.

  • Benefits: Allows for deeper stretches and promotes relaxation.
  • Disadvantages: Risk of overstretching or relying too much on external assistance.
  • Example: Lie on your back and loop a resistance band around one foot. While keeping your leg straight, gently pull it towards your chest, allowing gravity to assist the stretch.

Active Stretching
Contracting the antagonist muscle while stretching the target muscle.

  • Benefits: Enhances active range of motion, and improves muscle activation and control.
  • Disadvantages: Requires greater strength and coordination and may be challenging for beginners.
  • Example: Lie on your back with your legs straight. Use your hands to lift one straightened leg toward the ceiling while engaging your quads to actively push against your hands and stretch the hamstring.

PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
Alternating between contraction and relaxation of the target muscle to enhance flexibility.

  • Benefits: Maximizes flexibility gains and enhances neuromuscular control and coordination.
  • Disadvantages: Requires a partner or specialized training for proper execution.
  • Example: Lie on your back, raise one leg, and actively push against a partner’s applied resistance for several seconds. Relax for a few seconds and resume the position, allowing them to gently push your leg further into the stretch.

Putting knowledge into practice

Improving flexibility
Want to get “flexy”? Try incorporating a mix of static, dynamic, and PNF stretching into your routine.

Focus on targeting major muscle groups and perform stretches regularly, ideally after a warm-up or physical activity when muscles are looser. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of stretches over time to avoid overstretching or injury.

Foam rolling before stretching
Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release, can be beneficial before stretching to release muscle tension and improve tissue quality.

Rolling over tight or restricted areas helps prepare the muscles for stretching by reducing muscle stiffness and enhancing blood flow. Plus, it adds a bonus element of relaxation that we can all certainly benefit from.

Can stretching improve mobility?
Stretching plays a crucial role in improving the mobility of joints by increasing muscle length and neuromuscular control.

Combining dynamic and active stretching techniques that mimic functional movements can greatly enhance joint mobility and movement efficiency, leading to improved athletic performance and reduced risk of injury.

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3 myths about stretching (and one big truth)

To wrap up our deep dive into all things stretching, let’s debunk some common myths head-on so you’ll be ready to hit the ground stretchin’.

Myth: Stretching before exercise prevents injury.
Reality: While stretching can help improve flexibility and prepare the body for physical activity, it's more effective after a proper warm-up. Dynamic movements and muscle activation exercises are better suited for injury prevention before exercise.3

Myth: Stretching should be painful to be effective.
Reality: In this case, pain does not equal gain—stretching should be performed within a comfortable range of motion. In fact, if you’re feeling pain during stretching, it could indicate overstretching or underlying issues. To prevent injury, opt to avoid anything that causes pain.

Myth: Stretching helps relieve muscle soreness.
Reality: While not entirely a myth, always make sure to warm up before stretching. It doesn’t need to be complicated – a few Jumping Jacks or other simple exercises to get the blood flowing are sufficient. You want to avoid stretching when your muscles are tight and cold because it can do more harm than good.

The most important truth: Consistency is key to improving flexibility.
Stretching regularly, daily or at least several times per week, is essential for achieving and maintaining flexibility gains. Consistent practice helps prevent muscle tightness and maintains an optimal range of motion.4

Let’s recap

Understanding the science behind stretching, differentiating between flexibility and mobility, and incorporating various stretching techniques into your routines can unlock your body's full potential.

The benefits go beyond improving athletic performance—which is still a big win when you’re chasing those fit goals. Regular stretching also fosters better overall health and well-being, which is the ultimate why behind any fitness journey.

So, the next time you feel the urge to stretch, embrace it—it's your body's way of telling you it's ready to move, perform, and thrive.

Sources

[1] Shrier, I. (2004). Does stretching improve performance? A systematic and critical review of the literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(5), 267–273. [doi:10.1097/00042752-200409000-00004]

[2] Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11), 2633–2651. [doi:10.1007/s00421-011-1879-2]

[3] Herbert, R. D., & Gabriel, M. (2002). Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 325(7362), 468. [doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7362.468]

[4] Knudson, D. (2008). Fundamentals of biomechanics. Springer Science & Business Media.