One of the topics I get asked about very frequently as a physiotherapist is stretching. When should I stretch? How often do I need to stretch? Should I stretch before or after I do something active? Those few questions are probably the most common ones I get and can be the biggest source of confusion for most people. That being said the answer to all of those questions is generally, it depends. Sorry I know “it depends” is a terrible answer but you’ll see what I mean when I explain a bit more.
Let’s start with the whole premise of why we need to stretch. Our muscles shorten when contracting to produce their physical force. There is an optimal resting length a muscle will have at the start of its contraction to allow for the most efficient force production from that muscle. After several contractions a muscle tends to stay shorter at rest and this is where stretching becomes important. Stretching is the LENGTHENING of a muscle, so by stretching a muscle you are making it longer. If applied in the right parameters can help return a muscle to its optimal resting length for the most efficient force production.
Knowing all of that we can now discuss when and how to stretch. Ideally you would want to stretch when your muscles are going to be shortened. An example would be after playing a sport or completing an activity like running or cycling as part of a cool down. This doesn’t mean you would not warm up before your activity, but stretching in many cases should be focused more for after you have finished. Recent research also supports this idea that in many cases warmup stretching does not reduce the risk of injury by a significant amount. There are exceptions I would say for activities that require more flexibility like yoga or gymnastics for example but in those cases a long warm up would be required prior to stretching.
As for how hard to stretch, my general rule is you should feel a comfortable and progressing stretch but it shouldn’t hurt. If it is painful you may tighten up and won’t get the stretch you are after.
There needs to be a good balance between being mobile while avoiding being either too tight because you are not stretching enough or too flexible (because you stretch too much based on your body type). Both of these can lead to injuries so don’t get carried away.
Hopefully you found this information helpful, happy exercising! Also feel free to contact us for more information or questions! If there are topics you would like to see us cover, definitely drop us an email and it may be featured during a future blog post.
Fady Rofail PT DPT MCPA