Stretching longer isn’t always better


— Even if you don’t proactively do a stretching program, there’s a good chance that you instinctively do some sort of stretch every morning.

Think about it: Most of us feel an urge to reach our arms up and lengthen our muscles before we even leave our beds.

Even animals instinctively stretch after sleep. If you’ve ever seen a dog wake from a nap, you probably witnessed it doing the aptly named yoga pose downward-facing dog.

With the growing popularity of yoga, stretching is increasingly regarded as one of the best ways to reduce tension and enhance movement. However, there are different ways to stretch, some of which can do more harm than good, depending on circumstances.

Below, I explain why, how and when to incorporate particular stretching techniques into your workouts and overall lifestyle to deliver the most benefits without wasting time or risking injury.

An important note: Keep in mind your personal injury or surgery history and characteristics, like hypermobility, when deciding what types of stretches are appropriate for you. Always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Why stretch?

As I mentioned, stretching is a seemingly instinctive activity when you wake up — or any other time when you’ve been sedentary for a prolonged period.

That’s because, for the most part, it’s good for your body, offering many benefits for muscle health and enhanced mobility, including increasing circulation and joint range of motion. And by stretching in ways that move your body out of a habitually fixed or dysfunctional posture, you can prevent chronic tension and pain. This can be especially helpful for people who suffer chronic lower-back pain.

How to stretch properly

To stretch for better muscle health, movement and overall well-being, instead of 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.

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 an example of basic movements that take your body through all planes, check out my five-minute morning yoga sequence.

Stretching doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and sometimes, it’s better if it doesn’t. In fact, if you’re stretching in preparation for activity requiring muscular strength and power output, such as 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 point to a decrease in muscle strength and power immediately after static stretching.

Confirming previous research, a study published in 2014 in the 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 did only 30-second stretches of the same areas.

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 pushing too far in a stretch and causing a muscle tear or strain or, worse yet, ligament laxity and joint instability. Hypermobile people need to use extreme caution when stretching to avoid these risks.

I’m not saying you should never do static stretches. I’m a big fan of restorative yoga, which is all about long-held, gentle stretches. I only advise you to use caution. Remember that stretching is sometimes uncomfortable, but it should never evoke a level of discomfort that feels cautionary. Just the opposite: It should simultaneously feel beneficial, like a deep-tissue massage.

When to stretch

Dynamic stretching is beneficial any time your muscles feel compressed and tense or any part of your body feels swollen or lethargic from lack of movement.

In addition to first thing in the morning, it’s good to stretch after long bouts of sitting at a desk or traveling, as well as before and after workouts or sport performance. It’s also a good idea to stretch out before retiring at night — even just a few minutes of bedtime yoga — to avoid any lingering tension that could lead to restless sleep.

It may sound like a lot of stretching throughout the day, but when done correctly, it takes only a few minutes here and there to reap the rewards.

That said, you need to be consistent with your stretching to achieve lasting benefits. Although stretching immediately after a workout may feel good in the moment, the mobility that comes from stretching needs to be earned through consistent practice.

The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published a study in 2013 looking at the effects of one bout of stretching after exercise and found no lasting impact on muscle tension and stiffness unless the stretching was continued on consecutive days.

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, your muscles will adapt to your sedentary lifestyle.

Consistent, properly executed stretching will facilitate your ability to be an active participant in all the adventures of your lifetime.