Whether you realize it or not, odds are that you do some sort of stretching every day.
Most of us feel an urge to reach our arms up, stretching out our bodies, before we even leave our beds each morning. Even animals instinctively stretch after sleep. If you’ve ever seen a dog wake up, you likely witnessed it doing the aptly named yoga poses: downward and upward dog.
In addition to instinctively stretching when we wake, we also tend to do it after any other time we’ve been sedentary for a prolonged period. That’s because stretching offers many benefits, including increasing circulation and range of motion. And by stretching in ways that move your body out of habitually fixed postures, you can prevent chronic tension and pain; this is especially helpful for people suffering from chronic lower-back pain, which is why I include so many yoga-inspired exercises in my book: “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
Stretching Best Practices
To stretch for better muscle health, movement and overall well being, instead of only focusing on areas of tension, it’s best to stretch through all planes of motion (sagittal, transverse and frontal), using both sides of your entire body. That’s because—in most cases—the areas of tension are simply symptoms/effects of a dysfunctional or compensatory movement pattern.
By moving your body functionally in all directions, you have a better chance of addressing and correcting the true cause of your tension…and preventing future tension!
To cover all planes, simply think about all directions your spine, hips and shoulders move: extension (backward bending—Sagittal), flexion, (forward bending—Sagittal) rotation (twisting—Transverse) and lateral movement (side bending and adduction/abduction of the hips and shoulders—Frontal). For dozens of examples of ways to sequence movements through all planes, visit: www.MinuteMoFlow.com
How Long is Too Long?
The reason my MoFlows are only a minute is because stretching doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact, if you’re stretching in preparation for activity requiring muscular strength and power output (i.e., as part of a warmup for a workout, run, or sporting event), research shows that shorter-duration dynamic stretching is more beneficial than longer, static stretching—which can actually hinder performance.
Static stretching is generally characterized as any stretch done for more than 30 seconds; anything less is considered dynamic. Multiple studies have pointed to a decrease in muscle strength and power immediately following static stretching.
Confirming previous research, a study published in the December 2014 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found decreased vertical jump scores in participants immediately following bouts of 60-second stretches of their calves, hamstrings, glutes and quads versus those who only did 30-second stretches of the same areas.
Are Static Stretches Ever Appropriate?
Although longer static stretches can feel good after grueling workouts or sporting events, there is no research that clearly supports increased benefits over shorter-duration stretching. Moreover, longer-held stretches can increase the danger of over-stretching and causing a muscle tear or strain or, worse yet, ligament laxity and joint instability. Hypermobile people need to use extreme caution to avoid these risks.
I’m not saying you should never do static stretches. But I advise being cautious. Remember that stretching is sometimes uncomfortable, but it should never evoke a level of discomfort that feels cautionary. It should simultaneously feel uncomfortable and good/beneficial, like a deep-tissue massage.
When to Stretch
Dynamic stretching is of benefit anytime you’re prepping for physical activity or to break up sedentary periods, like when you’re working at a desk or traveling.Check out these articles I wrote for CNN that include stretching tips: Office Yoga Zen and Tame Travel Tension. It’s also a good idea before retiring at night to avoid any lingering tension that could lead to restless sleep. Try my Six Minutes Yoga for Better Sleep, also via CNN, or for an even shorter flow, give #MinuteMoFlow31 a try:
It may sound like a lot of stretching throughout the day, but when done correctly, it only takes a few minutes here and there to reap the rewards.
Your body is your vehicle for navigating your life, so it’s important to invest time and energy into keeping it moving effectively. If you stop stretching and moving regularly, your muscles will adapt to your sedentary lifestyle. Consistent, properly executed stretching will enable you to live an active, pain free life!
Note: This blog is adapted from an article I wrote for CNN last year. You can read the whole article HERE.