You may think of eating protein as necessary for building muscle and proper muscle function, but stretching should also be a daily routine to maintain muscular health. When you don’t stretch your muscles, they continue to tighten. This result leads to muscular tears. When your muscles are tight, they are actually weaker too. Your muscles weaken the longer you don’t stretch them. That means you won’t be able to lift as heavy of weights, run that extra mile, or stay in that handstand longer.
Here is a list of the benefits of implementing stretching into your daily routine:
- Increased flexibility and range of motion
- Reduced risk for injuries when used before and after exercise
- Better posture and alignment
- Increased blood supply that minimizes soreness after exercise
- Therapeutic effects that help you calm your mind after a hectic day
Is Stretching Always Healthy For Your Body?
Stretching may not be a regular part of your daily routine, but for the majority of my life, I spent a few hours each day stretching. Now this may seem super healthy to some that already know the health benefits associated with stretching. But I was actually doing more harm to my body than good.
At eleven years old, my ballet teacher told me that I had potential, and that she wanted to start doing private lessons with me. This term potential meant that I had naturally flexible feet and hips that are good for the ballet aesthetic.
The only issue was that my hamstrings were tight – I mean really, really tight.
Touching my toes felt like a big stretch. This reality isn’t great for ballet. Dancers often have very flexible hamstrings that allow them to lift their legs in positions that can look like a split.
That means professional ballet dancers usually have all three splits – sometimes even hyperextension – and the strength to hold their leg in that position when lifted. When I was eleven, I didn’t even have one split down.
Stretching always felt slightly painful and uncomfortable, so I just kind of avoided it. But, when my teacher told me that if I wanted to be a dancer, I needed to be flexible, I decided to start focusing on increasing my flexibility.
I was told to stretch while studying or watching TV so that I’d be sure to hold a stretch for a long period. Sometimes I’d hold a stretch for 30-45 minutes. My legs would be aching by the time I pulled them out of the stretch.
What’s worse is I didn’t warm up my muscles. I would just plop down into an extreme stretch without preparing my body.
You may be wondering if this helped my flexibility. Well after a few months of stretching for hours at a time daily, I had all three splits. Great, right?
Well… about another month later, I sat down in a split right before ballet class and pain started radiating from the back of my legs. As a result, I didn’t stretch as much anymore, but I didn’t change how I stretched.
A few years later, the pain became so intense that I wanted to quit dance. I eventually left a pre-professional ballet training school because of the pain.
I took a break from dance for a few months, but then decided to start dancing again at a small studio. For a year, I only danced once to three times a week. This amount of training may seem like a lot, but I was previously dancing for 3-5 hours a day, six days a week. So, for me, the amount of exercise was minimal.
Later, I decided to major in dance in college. By the beginning of the second year of college, I was in so much pain that I was told that I needed to get an MRI. At this point in time, it hurt to even walk.
The results from my MRI said that I had two muscular tears on my right leg and two inflamed bursae sacs (sacs that contain lubricating fluid between your joints) on the left leg in the same place as my muscular tears on the right.
I had been dancing with a hamstring tear, the semimembranosus, and a labral tear, the coating inside of your hip joint. I also was at a high risk of tearing the exact same muscles on my left leg.
I couldn’t dance for over a year, and the tears never really healed properly. I’ve never had the same range of motion again.
Since this time, I’ve done research on how you should be stretching to promote longevity and healthy muscle function. I’m able to keep my muscles healthy, and I actually enjoy stretching now and don’t worry about hurting my muscles.
Stretching can be more harmful to your body than helpful if you don’t know what you’re doing. But with a little knowledge about kinesiology, the science of how your body moves, you’ll help your body feel better rather than wreck your body and be in pain.
Though you may not see the negative effects of not stretching for a while, stretching actually increases your ability to participate in physical activity longer, keeps your muscles healthier, and keeps you younger. Stretching is essential to holistic wellness for all ages.
Here’s a list of the amazing benefits you’ll experience from a daily practice of stretching:
1. Increased Flexibility
If you’re an athlete in a field such as dance or gymnastics, you may already know the importance of flexibility. But, some level of flexibility is necessary for everyone. No matter your age, flexibility helps your body.
An increase in flexibility strengthens your muscles and boosts your range of motion. This can be great for those desiring a higher level of athletic performance, those who want to tone their body and get in shape, or even for those with arthritis to decrease pain and stay moving longer.
2. Injury Prevention
You know how important injury prevention is if you’re an athlete. An injury can set you back on training for weeks, months, or even years.
When you train without stretching, your muscles get tighter and tighter over time. Because of the restriction in movement from muscular tightness, your muscles will begin to pull on your joints and can increase your risk for injury.
The great thing about stretching is that it actually supports muscular strength. So, not only are you reducing your risk for injury, your muscles are getting stronger as well.
As you age, your muscles also begin to tighten, and your bones become more brittle. Stretching can actually slow down this process and help you stay young. Injury risk from daily activities also increases as you age. By staying more limber, you can reduce this risk.
3. Better Posture
You probably were told several times while you were growing up by your mother or grandmother to stand up straight. Posture is actually critical for keeping your body healthy.
Proper alignment supports muscular function. When bones and joints are correctly aligned, muscles are more easily activated and stress on ligaments and tendons are decreased.
Stretching can help to naturally better your posture. Because stretching actually helps strengthen your muscles, you’ll find that standing up straight doesn’t tire you. Your muscles will support your bones more effectively, and as an added bonus, when you don’t slouch, you look more confident.
4. Increased Blood Supply and Minimizes Soreness
You’ve probably been sore after a great workout at some point in your lifetime if not on a regular basis. Stretching after you exercise aids in reducing soreness because the act of stretching increases blood flow.
When you get an increased blood supply to your muscles after exercise, you are helping to repair the muscular tissue faster. Your blood pumps nutrients to the muscle to repair and help the muscle grow larger and stronger. That means you won’t have as long of a recovery period after a heavy duty work out.
5. Therapeutic Effects
Stretching can calm and still your mind. It can be great for reducing stress. Don’t think of your time for stretching as something to rush through. Instead use the time you stretch as time for meditation and relaxation. It can be your me time.
A great way to reap the full benefits of this is by incorporating conscious breath into your stretching routine.
You may have experienced this while doing yoga. Try to inhale right before you stretch and exhale while you go into the stretch. And then continue to breathe at the same slow rate.
Concentrating on your breath also helps to clear your mind. You can’t think about that massive to do list when you’re solely concentrating on your breath.
DYNAMIC VERSUS STATIC STRETCHING
Stretching is very healthy for you, but you need to know when it’s best to stretch and how to stretch so that you don’t end up injuring yourself. First, let’s define a couple of different methods of stretching.
Dynamic stretching is a form of stretching that uses movement. Rather than bending over your leg and holding the position for a period of time, your body is actively engaged in dynamic stretching. Think of swinging your legs, arm circles, or simply gently moving into a stretch and then releasing the stretch.
I want to make a strong distinction between dynamic stretching and quick herky jerky bobbing and bouncing.
Dynamic stretching is slow and controlled. When you bob or bounce during a stretch, you can easily tear your muscle especially if the muscle isn’t warm.
Static stretching is probably the method that you think of first when talking about stretching. This type of stretching is where you hold one position for a period of time without moving to stretch your muscles.
Static stretching can vary in length. You should try to hold the stretch for at least 20 seconds. Ultimately, you don’t want to hold a static stretch for over a minute though. When you hold a stretch for a prolonged period, you weaken the muscle and increase the risk for injury.
Your tendons and ligaments, the parts of your body that connect your muscles to bones and joints, will have added stress when you hold a stretch for a long duration as well. This increases your risk for muscle, tendon, and ligament tears.
You can understand why my lack of technique for stretching – holding a stretch for 30-45 minutes at a time – resulted in torn muscles.
So now that you know the difference between dynamic and static stretching, is one type of stretching better for you or should you avoid one type of stretching all together?
They are actually both great for your muscles. You just need to use them for different purposes.
You should use dynamic stretching before a workout. Static stretching actually reduces your athletic performance when used before exercise. Also, you should always try to do dynamic stretching before exercise. A study from 2005 found that dynamic stretching enhanced performance compared to not stretching.
Static stretching is wonderful for using after you finish exercising. Like I discussed earlier, exercise can shorten and tighten your muscles. Implementing static stretching after exercise will lengthen and bring more elasticity to your muscles. Plus, after a workout, you’ll already be warm, and your muscles will be prepared for deeper stretching.
STRETCHING EXERCISES AND TIPS
Preparing Your Body for Stretching
Never just immediately start stretching especially stretches that require higher levels of flexibility like splits. You want to be sure your body is warm. What do I mean by that?
You don’t have to be sweating, but your skin should be warm to the touch. If you are sweating, great! Don’t be scared to get sweaty. It just means that you had a productive workout.
If you stretch after you exercise, it’s easy to be warm and prepared for stretching. If you’re planning on doing a few dynamic stretches before exercise, try to gently jog in place for a few minutes to get your blood flowing.
Next, I like to actually put on more layers of clothes to ensure that my body stays warm for the duration of time I plan on stretching. When your muscles are warm, they are more elastic and less prone to injury.
Then … start stretching.
Things to Keep in Mind While Stretching
- Always keep your hips square especially in static stretches. The saying sounds strange, but try to think of your hip bones and shoulders as four corners of a rectangle. When you lean over your leg to stretch your hamstring or step back into a lunge, your hip bones should be pointing forward.
- It’s also important to be aware of how you feel in a stretch. If you’re warm enough, you shouldn’t feel any pain or discomfort while stretching. It should actually feel relaxing. If you feel anything like a sharp pain at any moment, come out of the stretch immediately. You may have strained the area.
- Make sure you feel the majority of the stretch in the belly or the center of the muscle. If you start to feel the stretch near a bone or joint, then you should release the stretch. You could potentially be injuring yourself.
- Stretching is healthy and should be done on a regular basis if possible. But, there are situations when you should avoid stretching. When you’ve injured a muscle, don’t stretch the area. You’ll only prolong the healing process.
A Few Types of Stretches to Try
1. Crescent Lunge
This static stretch is great for opening tight hip flexors. Really try to keep your hips square in this one to maintain proper alignment and get the full benefit from the stretch.
2. Downward Dog
This stretch can be done as a dynamic stretch or static stretch. For a dynamic stretch, start with both feet on the ground. Then, bend one knee and then alternate to the opposite leg.
Or, you can lift your leg back like in the photo, and then, draw your leg forward with you as you go into a plank position. You’ll get a stretch and an abdominal workout at the same time.
The static version would be to hold any of these stretches for a period of time.
3. Upward Dog
You can use this as a static stretch for your back by staying in hyperextension. Or, try alternating between this stretch and downward dog for a dynamic stretch before exercise. Be sure to keep your shoulders down away from your ears in this stretch.
4. Triangle Pose
This stretch is best used for static stretching only since it stretches your hip deeply. You’ll also feel a stretch in your hamstring. Be sure to keep your hips and shoulders facing forward. Don’t twist or sink in this stretch. Instead, think of actively lengthening your body.
5. Reverse Triangle
You’ll really feel your IT band on the outside of your leg in this stretch. Use this stretch for after exercise as a static stretch. Keep your hips facing forward while you twist your upper body. You may even feel this one in your back if you’re extra tight.
6. Side Body Stretch
Don’t forget about your upper body. Those muscles need to be stretched too. You might feel this stretch in your triceps if you use those muscle regularly, but the majority of the stretch will be on the side of your body where your abs are located.
Again, don’t sink down to the ground in this stretch. Think of reaching your fingers to a wall on the opposite side of the room. You’ll feel a deeper stretch that way.
The Importance Of Hydration, Vitamins, And Minerals For Muscular Function
Fueling your body correctly is also important for muscular function.
Without adequate hydration, your body can’t transport nutrients to your muscles. Without these minerals and nutrients, you won’t be able to repair your muscles after they break down from exercise.
So, try to drink at least eight cups of water daily. You should drink more if you’re exercising because your body loses water, minerals, and vitamins when you sweat.
It’s a good idea to take a vitamin and mineral supplement when you exercise frequently. Taking supplements for minerals would help you to replace those that you lost during exercise faster.
Magnesium is especially crucial for muscular function. When a muscle is tired, it becomes more prone to overuse injuries.
You can combat this issue by taking a magnesium supplement. One of magnesium’s primary functions is to transport calcium back into the bloodstream. Magnesium helps support the proper contraction and relaxation of muscles.
Omega-3s also play an important role in muscular and joint health. They lubricate your joints and reduce inflammation caused by injury or arthritis. Sunwarrior’s Omega-3 supplement goes straight to the source for their ingredients. Rather than fish oil. Sunwarrior chose algae since fish receive their Omega-3 from algae anyway.
Starting Your Path To Healthy Living
There is so much more to a holistic lifestyle than stretching properly. When you start your journey to healthier living, there seems to be so much information to weed through. It can be confusing and difficult to determine what you should focus on first.
That’s why we developed a short 15 Point Guide To Essential Health e-book. Take charge of your own health. With a little help, you’ll be living a healthier more fulfilled life in no time.
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