Incorporating a stretching regimen into your daily routine may seem like a no-brainer, but it's a bit like eating your vegetables — you know you should do it, but actually doing it is a whole other issue. Plus, there are a few different aspects to consider before you start.
Performing the wrong type of stretch can not only minimize the technique's effect but can also actually cause an injury. Take a look at these common stretching mistakes to learn how you can best remedy them.
1. Holding Your Breath
Just like with the rest of your workout, breathing during stretching is important. It's not uncommon to inadvertently hold your breath when you're working on your flexibility, particularly if you're new to the stretching process or if you're feeling a bit stiff.
Unfortunately, this can cause your body to remain tense and your muscles to stay contracted. This, in turn, hinders your ability to relax the muscle and stretch it appropriately.
To allow your muscles to relax as you stretch, begin by inhaling deeply before starting. Then, progressively exhale as you gradually move into the stretch and feel your muscle start to pull.
Continuing to breathe slowly and deeply as you feel your muscle stretch will keep your body from tensing up, according to the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM).
One other method suggested by the NASM is to count out loud. This can trick you into breathing, as you'll be forced to inhale and exhale as you count out each second.
2. Stretching for Too Long
Especially if your goal is increased flexibility, you may assume that the more you do, the better the result. But this isn't the case when it comes to stretching.
As reported in a March 2018 systematic review published in The Foot, increasing the amount of time spent holding an ankle stretch from 3,000 seconds per week (about 7 minutes per day) to 5,000 seconds per week (about 12 minutes per day) did not lead to appreciable improvement in joint range of motion.
To properly stretch a muscle group, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests holding each stretch for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds.
This should be done for 60 total seconds (roughly 2 to 6 reps) per muscle. And while they recommend stretching a muscle group at least 2 to 3 times a week, they also note that daily stretching may provide the greatest benefit.
3. Using Too Much Force
Any time you take a muscle and elongate it past its normal stopping point (like you do when you stretch), you'll feel a bit of discomfort. And though it's appropriate to feel some soreness as the tension builds, you should not experience sharp pain.
Pushing a stretch too far can cause injury to the muscle itself or to the surrounding joint or ligaments, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Any stretching that causes anything beyond discomfort should be immediately stopped.
Instead of forcing your stretches beyond what is comfortable, try decreasing the intensity. Gently take up the slack in the muscle until you feel a moderate pull, says Eileen Compty, DPT, licensed athletic trainer who's worked with the United States National Speed Skating Team. She recommends striving for a 3 to 4 out of 10 on the intensity scale.
4. Stretching if You’re Hypermobile
The vast majority of people can benefit from adding stretching into their fitness routine, however this isn't true for people with hypermobility, which makes the body's joints, ligaments and tendons much more flexible than normal.
This increased flexibility puts individual at a higher risk of injury if they further stretch their already lax muscles. Stretching a hypermobile joint can lead to sprains, subluxation (partial dislocation) or the development of osteoarthritis, according to the University of Wisconsin (UW).
While lightly stretching tight areas may still be appropriate in people with hypermobility, UW suggests focusing on a strengthening routine to provide stability to the lax joints. Low-intensity aerobic exercises like walking or biking can also be useful in maintaining your overall cardiovascular fitness.
Most importantly, it's crucial for people with hypermobility to consult with their doctor to determine what specific types of exercise are appropriate.
5. Picking the Wrong Type of Stretch
There are many types of stretches, but the two most common are static and dynamic. Depending on your goals, one of these stretching options may be more appropriate than the other.
- Static stretches are performed when a muscle is pulled to the point of mild discomfort and held here for a set amount of time.
- Dynamic stretches involve the steady movement of a muscle back and forth between its stretched and relaxed positions.
Though the research is still mixed, a December 2015 systematic review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found some evidence to support the notion that dynamic stretching may better help prepare you for physical activity.
They theorized that this is because dynamic stretching warms up the muscle better than static stretching. It may also better prepare your body by more closely mimicking the movements you'll be doing during your workout.
Static stretching, on the other hand, seems to be better suited for those looking to improve their overall range of motion. The previously cited systematic review in The Foot found that people performing static stretches on their ankle saw greater gains in range of motion than those who did dynamic (ballistic) stretching.
Those looking to stretch prior to a workout should stretch dynamically. To do this, begin with your muscle in a comfortable position and slowly stretch it until you feel a low to moderate level pull.
Once you get to this point, gradually return the muscle to its shortened state once again. Continue to rhythmically alternate between the two positions for 30 to 60 seconds.
Those looking to improve the range of motion at a particular joint (like the shoulders or hips) may be better served by statically stretching. To do this, try using the parameters detailed above in section 2.
6. Doing Static Stretches Before a Plyo Workout
Plyometric (aka plyo) exercises like jumping or bounding involve a rapid lengthening of a muscle followed by a high-velocity shortening. While stretching before this type of exercise may seem like a good plan, there's some evidence to suggest that stretching out a muscle may inhibit its ability to generate power as it rapidly shortens.
The above-mentiond systematic review in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reports that athletes who performed static stretches for longer periods of time saw moderate level drops in their performance during activities like long jumping, high jumping and sprinting.
The best way to prepare for a plyo workout may actually be a dynamic stretching routine instead of statically holding a muscle at the end of its range. This stretch variety more closely simulates the movements you’d make when performing a workout that incorporates rapid movements like jumping or bounding.
7. Stretching to Prevent Injury
Contrary to what you may hear, there's a growing body of evidence showing that stretching before you exercise has less effect on preventing injuries than previously thought.
According to the systematic review in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, there is minimal evidence that a regular stretching routine effectively prevents muscular injuries (like sprains or strains) or more repetitive-type injuries (like tendonitis). The same review also cast doubts on whether stretching before your workout can improve muscular soreness afterwards.
While there are some emerging doubts on the injury-preventing power of stretching before working out, this doesn’t mean you should abandon it completely. On the contrary, the potential benefits of stretching (improved range of motion, better muscular performance) still seem to justify the time it takes to incorporate it into your fitness routine.
8. Stretching Without Warming Up
If you plan on doing a static stretching session to improve your flexibility, performing a proper warm-up routine prior to stretching is important. That's because when you warm up, blood flows to the muscles being used and raises their internal temperature slightly.
In turn, this warming effect causes the muscle to be more pliable and better readies them to be lengthened during a stretch.
Mayo Clinic recommends a 5- to 10-minute warm-up prior to beginning your stretches. This can include light aerobic activities like walking, biking or slowly jogging.
A light dynamic warm-up that reproduces movements made during your sport or exercise can also be performed. For example, a baseball player may slowly swing a bat back and forth or complete some light throws with a partner before stretching out their shoulders.
- National Association of Sports Medicine: “The Right Way to Breathe During Exercise.”
- The Foot: “Chronic Effect of Different Types of Stretching on Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”
- American College of Sports Medicine: “Flexibility Exercise and Performance”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “The Importance of Stretching.”
- UW Health: “Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders.”
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: “Acute effects of Muscle Stretching on Physical Performance, Range of Motion, and Injury Incidence in Healthy Active Individuals: A Systematic Review.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Stretching: Focus on Flexibility.”