Introduction: Hello! Welcome to our ultimate stretching guide, part I.
The whole guide is in 3 parts (because it’s a lot!) and explains the benefits of stretching, when you should stretch, how to stretch, and what mistakes you need to avoid.
This first part is the why and when. When you finish, the link to Part II: How to Stretch is at the end.
Part I: Why and When to Stretch
Whenever I ask clients about stretching, the answer is always the same:
‘I know I should stretch, but I’m not stretching enough.’
And sometimes that’s because, let’s face it –
you don’t know what you’re doing.
And that’s normal!
There’s just so much conflicting information around stretching.
Plus it’s just one more thing to do.
Stretching, like almost everything in health and fitness, is something that can be very, very good for you when done correctly and very, verrrryyyy bad for you when done incorrectly (how bad? making you more prone to injury and actually increasing your muscle tension).
But you don’t have to worry about that!
Once you’ve finished our Ultimate Guide to Stretching, you’ll know exactly why to stretch, when to stretch, how to stretch and how not to stretch.
(and trust me, I know it’s needed. This entire thing was inspired by all the conversations I’ve had with you over the past few years. It’s totally been worth the 2 months it’s taken to write it).
What Is (and Isn’t) in This Series
Let’s just quickly check in so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
This post (Part I) is about the benefits of stretching (i.e. why you should) and when you should stretch.
Part II is all about how to stretch so you can get the most improvement with the least effort.
Part III explains common mistakes that most of our clients make (which means you probably do too) and why you need to stop doing them… stat.
I won’t be talking about the research around stretching, specific stretches for specific muscles, or the debate about whether or not it’s good for you.
Those are all important, but really at some point I might as well just write a book so we needed to be a little cutthroat here (when it comes to what to exclude. Not life in general).
(I could also go into a lot of detail about why there’s a contingent of people who think it’s bad for you, and it is in fact pretty detrimental if you’re doing it wrong which is probably what those people are looking at when they think it’s bad – but I digress).
A Framework for You
While you’re not getting specific stretches for specific muscles, what you are getting is a framework for how to safely & effectively stretch that you can apply to any muscle.
However, I know that even the smartest people can have trouble working out which specific stretch is good for which specific muscle, or where muscles attach.
If you need some help, we’re always happy to use some of your session time to review a stretch or exercise, explain where a muscle starts and finishes, and give you some ideas of stretches you can try for specific problems.
Or, in other words, if you read through this and find you still have a few questions, don’t hesitate to ask us and we’re happy to help.
The Benefits of Stretching
Before we start talking about the nuts and bolts of how and when, let’s look at the broad-stroke benefits of stretching regularly:1
Why, exactly, should you take any precious time out of your life to stretch? Is it really that important?
Would You Like Easier Movements?
When your muscles are looser, it’s easier to move.
If you imagine your muscles are like resistance bands, when you try to pull against a tight muscle, it’s like you’re trying to pull against a thick resistance band.
Stretching reduces that tension/resistance so then moving requires less effort (which is why so many people say they feel like they’re a stone lighter at the end of a massage with us).
Would You Like More Powerful Movements?
When a muscle is short and tight, it’s not able to contract as much (because there’s nowhere for the fibres to go).
Loosening muscles means they have more capacity to contract, and a bigger contraction means more power.
Here’s an analogy for you:
If you throw a ball, and put your hand next to your ear and throw the ball 2 inches – how much power is in your throw? (not much, right?)
But if you throw a ball and pull your hand as far back behind your head as possible, and end with your arm as far forward as possible (follow through) – how far will that ball go? (a lot farther, right?)
Likewise, if your muscle only has about 20% of its contractile capacity (because it’s so short already), the power you can achieve is much, much less vs if it has 80 or 90% of its contractile capacity (without being too loose – you can overstretch/have muscles that are too loose).
How About Less Injury?
In my experience, tighter muscles correlates with more injuries. It seems like tight muscles are easier to strain and create a strain in the whole system.
The majority of clients who have regular massage (i.e. regularly loosen too-tight muscles) see a decrease in injury (as long as they follow our other advice as well).
So…. if you could feel lighter, stronger, and have fewer injuries when you’re training, is that worth a few minutes a day to you?
Okay, okay, you’ve convinced me. When should I stretch?
When Should I Stretch?
Don’t gloss over this part!!
If we break down how important each aspect of stretching is, how to do it would be 75% and when to do it would be 20% (yes, I know that’s missing 5% but I always like to leave some extra percentage in case there’s a yet-to-be-discovered important factor roaming around in the ether waiting to be downloaded).
And especially when it comes to keeping you safe and preventing injury, when to stretch is REALLY important.
Don’t Stretch Before You Train
I’ll tell you one thing: DO NOT STRETCH BEFORE YOU WORKOUT. (btw, I’m talking about static stretching here, NOT dynamic stretching)
Half the people reading this will be like ‘duh, that’s been true for years’ and the other half will say ‘What?? Really?? But I always stretch before I workout!’
Yes, when I was a teenager playing football in my community girls’ team, we would ALWAYS stretch before practice.
It was common and best practice for a long time.
Then research started to show that static stretching before training seemed to link to worse performance and even an increase in injury.
It makes sense, though, right?
Static stretching relaxes your muscles.
Do You Want to Train When You’re Relaxed?
When you’re relaxed, do you feel like expending a lot of physical effort? Or do you feel like sleeping, chilling out and watching TV, or something that doesn’t require much work?
Likewise, when you stretch your muscles, you’re signalling them to relax, not ‘get ready to be active!’
Most recommendations nowadays are to do a dynamic warmup (also often called ‘dynamic stretching’ ) and static stretching as part of a cool down after.
If you shouldn’t stretch before training, when should you stretch?
After You Train
The best time to stretch is when you’re warm, and especially after contracting your muscles over and over and over and over again.
Think of it like washing dishes – you don’t wash your dishes before you’ve eaten off of them, you wash them after.
When you exercise, you’re using your muscles (aka getting the dishes dirty), so stretching them (aka cleaning the dishes) after to un-do/release all that repeated contraction makes sense.
While you might not always clean your dishes straight away, you know washing them BEFORE you eat (because you don’t have any clean plates left and don’t want to wait an hour for a takeaway), is much harder work than if you’d just done it straight after.
Let’s say you don’t want to wash your dishes right after you eat – maybe you like to chill out and read a book or watch TV for a bit.
I know a lot of people who make it part of their evening routine. Though it’s a couple hours after food, it’s still easier than waiting until the next time you eat.
Just like with dishes, stretching can be done before bed.
If you can’t (or just refuse to) stretch right after you train, a second option is to do a couple of stretches before bed.
You’ll be warmer than if you’ve been laying motionless for 7-10 hours. It has the added bonus of making it easier to sleep.
If you’re always paying attention to how you FEEL vs how FAR you can stretch (which we talk about in Part II), you’ll naturally adjust to the fact that your muscles are a little colder and a little less pliable than right after you train
Part I: Sum-Up
That’s it for Part I!
If you got lost when I started talking about dishes, here are your main takeaways:
- Stretching can make you feel lighter, have more power in your training and reduce your chances of injury IF DONE CORRECTLY.
- Do not do static stretching before you train (but you can do dynamic stretching, aka dynamic warmup).
- The best times to stretch is right after you workout OR before you go to bed.
1 If you’re asking, hey, what is this based on? Welcome to my club. Whenever I see statements like this on the internet, I want to know where they’re getting this stuff. Are they making it up? Is there some solid research behind it? So here’s my answer for you:
My understanding is that the research is a little limited around stretching, and the majority of what I’m talking about is related to my clinical experience, with a little bit of general knowledge. The general knowledge is regarding the contractile properties of muscles (the actin/myosin fibres that pull together during contraction). The clinical experience is around how hypertonicity (e.g. too much tension) affect muscle function and what happens when you release the correct muscles and reduce hypertonicity.