Have you ever wondered why it’s important to stretch after exercise? Do you know how to do it correctly to get all its benefits? Do you know the different types of stretches that exist and which ones are the most suitable for each sport or physical activity?
If you want to learn more about stretching, its objectives, its benefits, its contraindications, its steps and its tips, we invite you to read this article until the end. Here you will find all the information you need to stretch safely and effectively, avoiding injuries and improving your muscle recovery.
In addition, at the end of the article we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions that people usually have about stretching, such as how long it should last, when it should be done, what muscles should be stretched, and how should you breathe during stretching.
What Stretching Is and Why It’s Important
Definition of Stretch
Stretching is a technique that involves lengthening or elongating muscles and tendons that are shortened or tight due to exercise, stress, posture, or aging. The goal of stretching is to restore the muscles and joints to their normal length and mobility, thus promoting their optimal functioning.
Stretching can be done actively, when the subject performs the movement themselves, or passively, when another person or an external element helps the subject to stretch. It can also be performed statically, when holding a fixed position for a period of time, or dynamically, when performing smooth and controlled movements.
Stretching can be applied to a single muscle or a group of muscles, depending on whether it is a segmental or global stretch. Likewise, stretching can be adapted to the type of sport or physical activity you practice, since stretching is not the same to run, swim, dance or do yoga.
Goals and Benefits of Stretching
Stretching has several goals and benefits for health and physical performance, among which the following can be highlighted:
- Increase muscle flexibility and elasticity, allowing for wider, more fluid movements.
- Improve blood circulation and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, which promotes cell regeneration and the elimination of waste.
- Prevent and relieve muscle pain, contractures, cramps, inflammations, and injuries, such as strains, tears, or tendonitis.
- Relax muscle tension and stress, which contributes to improved mood, sleep and quality of life.
- Improve body posture and joint alignment, which prevents problems such as scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis or osteoarthritis.
- Improve sports performance and learning capacity and motor coordination, which translates into greater efficiency and safety when performing exercise.
Consequences of Not Stretching After Training
If you don’t stretch after training, it can lead to a number of negative consequences for your health and physical performance, including:
- Decrease muscle flexibility and elasticity, limiting range of motion and the ability to perform certain activities.
- Reduce blood circulation and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, hindering muscle recovery and waste elimination.
- Increase the risk of muscle pain, contractures, cramps, inflammation, and injuries, such as strains, tears, or tendonitis.
- Increase muscle tension and stress, which affects mood, sleep, and quality of life.
- Worsen body posture and joint alignment, which favors the appearance of problems such as scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis or osteoarthritis.
- Decrease athletic performance and learning capacity and motor coordination, which is reflected in lower efficiency and safety when performing exercise.
Types of stretches depending on the sport or exercise
Static & Dynamic Stretches
Static stretches are those that are performed by maintaining a fixed position for a certain amount of time, which usually ranges between 10 and 30 seconds. This type of stretching is recommended after physical activity, when the muscles are warm and relaxed, to promote recovery and prevent injuries.
Dynamic stretches are those that are performed through gentle and controlled movements, which progressively increase the range of motion. This type of stretching is recommended to be done before physical activity, as part of the warm-up, to prepare the muscles and joints for exercise and improve performance.
Some examples of static stretches are as follows:
- Hamstring stretch: sitting on the floor, with one leg extended and the other flexed, it is about bringing the trunk towards the extended leg, trying to touch the foot with the hands.
- Quadriceps stretch: standing, with one hand resting on a wall or chair, this involves bending one leg backwards and holding the foot with the other hand, bringing the heel closer to the buttocks.
- Calf stretch: standing, with one leg forward and the other behind, this involves resting your hands on a wall and bending your front leg, keeping your back leg extended and your heel on the floor.
Examples of dynamic stretches include:
- Arm stretching: standing with your arms extended in front of you, this involves making circles with your hands, first in one direction and then in the other.
- Leg stretch: standing, with your legs apart, this involves performing lateral swings with one leg, trying to touch the foot with the opposite hand.
- Back stretch: standing with your legs slightly bent, this is about rotating your trunk, first to one side and then to the other.
Passive & Active Stretching
Passive stretches are those that are performed with the help of another person or an external object, such as a rubber band, towel, wall, or chair. This type of stretching is characterized by the absence of muscle contraction on the part of the stretching subject, since it is the external force that produces the elongation.
Active stretches are those that are performed without the help of another person or an external element, but depend on the muscle strength of the individual stretching. This type of stretching is characterized by the contraction of the antagonist muscles, that is, those that perform the opposite movement to the one you want to stretch.
Some examples of passive stretches are as follows:
- Pectoral stretch: Standing with your arms extended to your sides and your hands holding an elastic band, this involves bringing your arms forward, until the elastic band touches your chest.
- Abductor stretch: lying on the floor, with your legs bent and the soles of your feet together, it involves pressing your knees towards the floor with your hands, until you feel the stretch in the inner thighs.
- Lower back stretch: lying on the floor, with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor, it is about hugging your knees with your arms and bringing them towards your chest, until you feel the stretch in the lower back.
Examples of active stretching include:
- Biceps stretch: Standing with your arms extended behind you and your palms facing down, this involves contracting your triceps, which are the antagonist muscles of your biceps, to stretch the biceps.
- Stretch of the buttocks: lying on the floor, with one leg extended and the other flexed, it is about contracting the abdominals, which are the antagonist muscles of the buttocks, to stretch the latter.
- Hip flexor stretch: standing with one leg forward and the other behind, this involves contracting the glutes, which are the antagonist muscles of the hip flexors, to stretch the latter.
Global & Segmental Stretches
Global stretches are those that are performed on muscle chains, that is, on groups of muscles that are connected to each other and that perform the same function. This type of stretching is based on the idea that muscles do not act in isolation, but are part of an integrated system that must be treated globally.
Segmental stretches are those that are performed on individual muscles, that is, on muscle units that are isolated and that perform a specific function. This type of stretching is based on the idea that muscles can be stretched independently, without affecting the rest of the muscles that are part of the muscle chain.
Some examples of global stretches are as follows:
- Stretching the posterior chain: standing, with your legs together and your arms extended upwards, it is about bringing your trunk forward, trying to touch the ground with your hands, without bending your knees. This stretch affects the muscles of the back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
- Anterior chain stretch: lying on the floor, face down, with your legs together and your arms bent, it is about lifting your trunk and head, supporting yourself on your hands, without separating your hips from the ground. This stretch affects the muscles of the chest, abdominals, quadriceps, and hip flexors.
- Side chain stretch: standing, with your legs apart and your arms extended to the sides, this is about tilting your trunk to one side, trying to touch the ankle with your hand, without bending the knee. This stretch affects the muscles of the side, obliques, abductors, and adductors.
Some examples of segmental stretches are as follows:
- Deltoid stretch: standing with one arm extended in front of you and the other hand holding your elbow, this involves bringing your arm towards your chest, until you feel the stretch in your shoulder.
- Trapezius stretch: standing, with the head tilted to one side and the hand on the same side holding the head, it is about gently pressing the head towards the shoulder, until you feel the stretch in the neck.
- Iliopsoas stretch: on your knees, with one leg forward and the other behind, it is about moving the hip forward, keeping the back straight, until you feel the stretch in the front of the hip.
Steps to Performing a Good Stretch
Muscle relaxation phase
The muscle relaxation phase is the first step to performing a good stretch. It consists of releasing tension and stress that accumulates in the muscles during exercise or daily activity. To do this, it is recommended to breathe deeply and slowly, relax the mind and body, and adopt a comfortable and natural posture.
The muscle relaxation phase is important because it prepares the muscles for the stretching phase, preventing them from resisting or contracting involuntarily. In addition, it helps reduce pain, inflammation, and the risk of injury, and improves mood and quality of life.
The muscle relaxation phase can be performed before, during, and after stretching, depending on each person’s needs and preferences. It can be done individually or in a group, with music, aromatherapy, massages or other techniques that promote relaxation.
Muscle Elongation Phase
The muscle stretching phase is the second step to performing a good stretch. It consists of lengthening or stretching muscles and tendons that are shortened or tight, restoring them to their normal length and mobility. To do this, it is recommended to perform the appropriate stretching exercises for each muscle or muscle chain, following the instructions of a professional or a reliable guide.
The muscle stretching phase is important because it improves muscle flexibility and elasticity, allowing for wider, more fluid movements. In addition, it improves blood circulation and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, which promotes cell regeneration and the elimination of waste.
The muscle stretching phase should be performed after physical activity, when the muscles are warm and relaxed, to promote recovery and prevent injury. It should be done progressively, without forcing or exceeding the pain limit, and holding the position for between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the type of stretch.
Muscle Maintenance Phase
The muscle maintenance phase is the third and final step to performing a good stretch. It consists of preserving the benefits obtained with the elongation phase, preventing the muscles and joints from returning to their initial state of shortening or stiffness. To do this, it is recommended to lead a healthy lifestyle, which includes a balanced diet, adequate hydration, sufficient rest and regular and moderate physical activity.
The muscle maintenance phase is important because it prolongs the positive effects of stretching, such as improved flexibility, circulation, posture, performance, and quality of life. In addition, it prevents the onset of muscle and joint problems, such as pain, inflammation, contractures, cramps or injuries.
The muscle maintenance phase should be done continuously, incorporating stretching as a healthy habit into the daily routine. It should be done at least two or three times a week, varying the stretching exercises according to the type of sport or physical activity practiced, and following the recommendations of a professional or a reliable guide.
Tips for Stretching Correctly and Avoiding Injury
To stretch correctly and avoid injuries, it is important to follow a series of tips that will help you perform the stretch safely and effectively. These tips are as follows:
Adapt the stretch to the physical level and the goal of the workout
Not all stretches are the same or suitable for everyone. That’s why it’s important to adapt the stretch to your physical level and training goal. For example, if you are a beginner, you should start with gentle and simple stretches, which do not cause you pain or discomfort. If you are advanced, you can try more intense and complex stretches, which are challenging and improving. Also, if your goal is to improve your flexibility, you should stretch longer and more frequently. If your goal is to improve your performance, you should do shorter, more targeted stretches.
Do not skip or shorten the stretch
Stretching is a fundamental part of training, which should not be skipped or shortened due to lack of time or desire. Stretching will help prevent and relieve muscle soreness, improve recovery, and avoid injury. Therefore, you should dedicate at least 10 minutes to it at the end of each exercise session, and do it consciously and concentrated, without distractions or rushing.
Don’t confuse stretching with warming up
Stretching and warming up are two different techniques that have different goals. Stretching should be done after physical activity, to relax and lengthen the muscles and joints. Warming up should be done before physical activity, to activate and prepare the muscles and joints. Therefore, stretching should not be confused with warm-ups, nor should one be substituted for the other, as both are necessary and complementary for a complete and healthy workout.
Do not stretch that causes pain or discomfort
Stretching should be a pleasurable and beneficial technique, which does not cause pain or discomfort. For this reason, stretches that exceed the tolerance limit of each person should not be performed, nor that involve sudden, forced or inappropriate movements. If you feel pain or discomfort during stretching, you should reduce the intensity or change the exercise, and consult a professional if the problem persists or becomes severe.
Hydrate properly before, during, and after stretching
Hydration is a key factor for stretching, as muscles and joints need water to function properly and prevent dehydration, fatigue, and injury. Therefore, you should drink water before, during and after the stretch, in small sips and without overdoing it. It is recommended to drink between 1.5 and 2 liters of water a day, and increase the amount if you do intense physical activity or if you sweat a lot.
In conclusion, stretching is a technique that consists of lengthening or elongating muscles and tendons that are shortened or tight, in order to improve flexibility, circulation, posture, performance and quality of life. Stretching should be done after physical activity, following the steps of relaxation, stretching and muscle maintenance, and following the advice to adapt stretching to the physical level and the objective of the training, not to skip or shorten the stretch, not to confuse stretching with warm-up, not to stretch that causes pain or discomfort, and properly hydrate before, during, and after stretching.
We hope you found this article helpful and interesting, and that it encourages you to incorporate stretching as a healthy habit into your daily routine. Remember that stretching will help prevent and relieve muscle soreness, improve recovery, and avoid injury. Plus, it will make you feel more relaxed, more flexible, and happier.
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Frequently asked questions
How long should the stretch last?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the time that should be spent stretching depends on several factors, such as the type of stretching, fitness level, training goal, time available, and personal preferences. However, as a general rule, it is recommended to spend at least 10 minutes stretching after each exercise session, and hold each position for 10 to 30 seconds, depending on the type of stretch. A shorter, more dynamic stretch can also be done before exercise, as part of the warm-up, to prepare the muscles and joints for movement.