Stretching has long been questioned as an important part of an exercise routine. After all, often stretching doesn’t feel like exercise, it can be slightly uncomfortable, and it takes some time (who has time to sit and touch your toes when you have a coffee date waiting?!). Thus in lies the great debate: to stretch or not to stretch.
As with most truths in life, the correct answer is “It’s complicated.”
First, there are different types of stretches. “Dynamic Stretches” are active with movement. Examples of this are leg swings, arm circles and walking toe touches. These are best used as a warm-up before exercise or activity to bring blood flow to the muscle and gently introduce the muscle to the length/position it will be used during the exercise. This type of stretching is important for preventing injuries (such as strains) and maximizing sporting potential.
The second type of stretches are “Static Stretches”. This invokes prolonged holds without movement including seated hamstring stretch, runner’s lunge calf stretch, and doorway pec stretch. Static stretches are useful when there is a muscle imbalance of specific shortened muscle length or decreased flexibility. People can loose flexibility a variety of ways, such as poor posture, repetetive movements only in one direction, inactivity, aging, or immobilization following an injury/surgery. It is important to maintain proper muscle balance to normalize the forces around joints which will decrease the risk of injury. In order to perform static stretches properly, you must hold it for a long duration (30-60 seconds) at a low load (3/10 stretch) in order to make lasting change in the muscle length (think stretching a rubber band). These stretches are best performed AFTER activity because research shows static stretches limit muscle power immeadiely following, therefore may limit your ability to participate fully in that activity.
The next class of stretches are called “Active Range of Motion”. These are gentle movements through the available range which are designed to bring in blood flow to the area, lubricate the joint with synovial fluid, and lightly warm up the soft tissue. Active Range of Motion exercises are also great for pain relief as the oscillating motion fires receptors in the joint that trigger a pain-relieving response. These are typically prescribed for post-surgical recovery or recommended first-thing in the morning when joints are typically more stiff.
So there you have it. Stretching can be incredibly useful for preventing injuries, decreasing pain, improving sport performance, increasing flexibility/mobility and decreasing pain. The important thing to keep in mind is knowing when, how, and where to stretch with the various types of stretching available. And yes, it is worth it.