We naturally do it first thing in the morning, reaching high and long into the air to rid our body of tension and stress, yet many of us skip the stretching portion of our workout, promising to do it next time. Love it or hate it, stretching is an essential component for many in leading a healthy and fit lifestyle.
Building a daily stretch sequence is simple and comes with a slew of health benefits, from increasing range of motion and improving flexibility, to warding off the risk of injury—all from just 10 minutes of mat time a day.
Whether you’re new to stretching, need a boost of motivation, or would like to elevate your stretch game, listen up! We’ve asked the experts to break down the various forms of stretching, how long to hold each stretch to gain the full benefit, and which myths should be debunked.
Does Stretching Actually Have Proven Benefits?
Although stretching serves its individual purpose to each person, collectively, the overriding consensus on stretching is its positive role across many aspects of our health. But these benefits depend on how and why we stretch.
At its simplest, many find stretching a welcome relief. “I work mainly with patients suffering with chronic pain, and for them, stretching feels great—it’s like accessing an itch that has been building up slowly over time which can temporarily relieve pain,” explains Heather Jeffcoat.
“However, stretching almost always needs to be followed in these cases by some stability work, [with] a focus on increasing restricted joint mobility and working through their active range of motion, alternating with strengthening and activities such as Pilates,” says Jeffcoat.
When viewing stretching as a science, findings on its effectiveness vary, with some experts singing its praises louder than others. “I think it’s important to look at the decades of quality research and clinical experience that has been put out and continues to be put out addressing the positive effects of stretching,” Jeffcoat says. “It’s something that works differently for each individual patient.”
At its core, stretching is a welcome opportunity to tap into our body and mind for some welcome ‘me’ time.
Is There an Ideal Time to Stretch?
Depending on our schedules, routines and workout go-tos, stretch timing will differ from person to person. However, experts point to specific times which may reap the most positive impact: “Both morning and evening are great times to stretch because both signify a time when your body revs up for the day and unwinds from the day,” explains Andrea Fornarola. “Morning is an optimum time to stretch to reduce stiffness in the joints and awaken the body so that it moves more functionally throughout the day.”
This is especially true the more we age, given cartilage can dry out and reduced levels of synovial fluid is produced to lubricate joints. In addition, due to inactivity, muscles and tendons become tighter during sleep, and so a gentle morning stretch is a refreshing wake up for the body. “Evening is also a perfect time to sneak in a stretch following a full day of activity, as it helps to lengthen the muscles and realign the muscular-skeletal system”.
Stretching also plays a role before and after exercise, both to warm up the body, increase blood flow, and improve flexibility. “A static or passive stretch is a technique best used after exercise or sport as part of a cool-down routine,” explains Jeffcoat. “Gentle static stretching is also great for chronic pain.” On the other end of the spectrum, dynamic, active stretching is conducted as you slowly move in and out of your full available range of motion to procure a brief stretching sensation. “These tend to be more functional, and I instruct patients to perform them prior to their exercise or sport, essentially mimicking patterns they are about to perform, helping to warm up the neuromuscular control of the muscle by prepping it for the upcoming functional movements,” he explains.
How Long Should Each Stretch Last?
While experts claim stretches can be held from as little as 10 seconds to feel the benefit and up to minutes at a time, it’s both dependent on the individual and the type of stretch. According to Jeffcoat, a static stretch is achieved by holding a single position for 30 seconds, while dynamic stretching can be conducted in a rep manner for around 10-12 repetitions.
Similarly, Fornarola recommends holding a static stretch between 30-60 seconds to achieve a lengthening of muscles and increase in flexibility before repeating a few times to gain the full benefit of the stretch. “An interesting rule of thumb is to stretch for one minute for every two minutes of exercise; so, for instance, if you complete a 30-minute workout, you should spend at least 15 minutes stretching.”
And if we’re crunched for time? “A long stretch may be an unattainable goal for some, but even factoring in at least five minutes of stretching before and after each workout will warm-up and cool-down the body efficiently.”
What Are Some Common Stretching Mistakes to Avoid?
Mistakes can arise in our body positioning and also the degree of stretch, such as trying too hard to push out with our stretching boundaries, risking tearing of muscle fibers. The muscle has a natural protective response called “the stretch reflex” that allows the muscle to contract in response to the stretch, but pushing beyond this resistance can cause damage and counteracts the goal of stretching.
“If one side is more restricted than the other, it should be worked on more through a combination of rolling out and stretching,” explains Jeffcoat. “I have many patients stretch their hamstrings three or four times over, and I avoid stretching their quads or hip flexors as there always needs to be a balance in the system.”
As a rule of thumb: stretch until you feel an onset of resistance, backing off before any sharp or painful sensations are felt. “I always tell my patients that if it feels good and is temporarily relieving, then to continue stretching. If it makes you feel worse, stop. Listen to your body and go with what feels good.”