You may remember from gym class that stretching before you exercise is a good thing, but if you’re still doing the same stretches you learned in gym class, it might be time for an update.
“Stretching is a really great practice that a lot of people skip over because it doesn’t seem like the main event,” said Parwana Schell, PT, MPT, an orthopedic certified specialist from Samaritan Physical Rehabilitation Specialists–Corvallis. “Any stretching before exercise is good, but dynamic stretching is what we’ve learned is the most helpful in terms of getting your muscles ready to work.”
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
When you think of stretching, you probably think of static stretches, like bending over to reach for your toes and holding the position for several seconds. According to Schell, this type of stretching is great for improving your overall muscle flexibility and joint range-of-motion, as well as improving circulation and helping you to relax at the end of the day.
While static stretching usually occurs at the end ranges-of-motion, dynamic stretching focuses on movement through your existing range-of-motion.
Dynamic stretching is more active than static stretching, and it’s typically part of a warm-up routine before you start your exercise.
“Dynamic stretching gets blood flowing to the muscles you’re getting ready to use,” said Schell. “It also gives you a chance to test how your muscles and joints are feeling that day before you put a heavy exercise load on them.”
Recent research has shown that dynamic stretching can improve muscle performance such as speed, power and agility. It can also reduce the risk of injury.
The movements usually are functional and sport-specific – for instance, runners may do high knees or swimmers may do arm circles. These stretches should use your full range of motion.
“Dynamic stretches are controlled, fluid movements,” reminded Schell. “You should avoid bouncing at the peak of the stretch as this can lead to injury.”
Dynamic Stretches to Try
When you’re going to be moving, whether it’s walking, jogging, snow shoeing or kayaking, you can help your body by doing some dynamic stretching. Make sure your stretches move your legs, arms and core. Try:
- Lunge and twist – Press your hands or fists together in front of you with your elbows pointing to the side. Step forward with your right leg and let your left knee drop low into a lunge. Keeping your head over your hips, twist your upper body to the right. Face forward again and push your right leg back to where you started. Step forward with your left leg and let your right knee drop, and twist your upper body to the left. Complete 20 lunges, 10 on each side.
- High knees – Stand with your arms bent at the elbow, parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Run in place and try to bring your knees up high enough to bump your palms. Run for 30 seconds.
- Leg swings – Stand and place your hand on a chair or wall at your side. Standing on one leg, let the other leg swing forward and backward 10 times using controlled movement. Switch legs.
- Arm circles – Slowly rotate one arm forward five times and backward five times. Switch arms.
Should You Still Do Static Stretches?
According to Schell, static stretches are still an important foundation for physical fitness.
“Static stretching is a powerful tool to ease tightness or pain, keep muscles limber and help with relaxation,” she said. “You can work static stretches in throughout your day to keep your body loose and make moving easier. Static stretching after a workout can also help with recovery and minimize soreness.”
Best Times for Static Stretches
- First thing in the morning. Stretching can help loosen tight muscles caused by poor sleeping position and get you energized for the day. Neck and back muscles are typically the most likely to be sore in the morning, reported Schell, so focus on those areas for stretching.
- During long periods of sitting. Whether it’s a day of work, a car trip or binge-watching your favorite show, static stretches can help lengthen muscles that are tight from sitting still too long. Try to stretch and shift position at least every 30 minutes, and walk around every hour (that can be tough on a road trip, so make the most of pit stops).
- After you exercise. Maybe you’ve just crushed your workout, or maybe you did an activity you haven’t done in a while and are already anticipating how sore you’re going to feel tomorrow. Either way it’s a great time for static stretches. Your stretches should focus on the muscles you worked to reduce soreness, but you can also include some full-body options if you’re working on overall flexibility or range of motion.
- Before bed. Stretches before bed should be gentle to help loosen tension in your muscles and calm your mind. Schell recommended a combination of static stretches and relaxing movements like child’s pose, cat/cow and legs-up-the-wall.
To get the most out of your static stretches, hold the stretch so it’s just beyond comfortable and you can feel it, but not painful. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Avoid bouncing during the stretch, and most importantly, remember to breathe!
“Stretching is something I work on with patients no matter what they come to me for – it has so many benefits,” said Schell. “You’re never too old or too out of shape to stretch.”
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