HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU STRETCH?
by Federico Romaniello
Stretching is a useful and underestimated practice for everybody. Most of the times, people do not know enough about it and are not sure of the correct technique.
How long and how deep should a stretching session be? Let’s divide stretching practice in different categories: Warm-up stretching, Cool-down stretching, ROM-improvement (Range Of Movement) stretching and morning stretching.
This is just a classification I use, it is not something taken from books or professional practitioner, but it is useful to understand what is suggested to do and what is not advisable depending on the situation.
Warm-up and Cool -down are two big topics to talk about, and you will find more information on a separate article. However, they are essential steps that are, sadly, skipped often during any ‘movement’ session.
STRETCHING AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Before you start a heavy training session or a basketball match with your friends in the park, you want your body to get ready. Of course, a warm-up has different steps to be followed, but now, I am going to focus only on stretching.
To get the maximum results from your muscles, you need the blood to flow on every muscle fibre: active stretching is the best for increasing your blood supplies to your muscle.
Active stretching is when you ‘actively’ move your body to reach the full ROM (Range Of Movement) of your joints: If you are going to run in the park you might want to swing your leg back and forth to reach your hip joint ROM; If you are going to have an upper body workout you will focus on your shoulder ROM doing circumductions with your arm.
This should not be a heavy stretching, and it must not feel painful or uncomfortable; besides, it should be 15 to 30 seconds per joint, just to wake the blood vessels up and make your muscles softer.
On the other hand, when you finish your workout, you want to release your muscles from the heavy or constant contractions. A cooldown should not start with a heavy stretch; however, after you stopped the exercise, you might want to have some light, passive stretch to elongate your muscles.
A passive stretch to Cooldown should consist in holding a position for 20 to 40 seconds and should feel just uncomfortable or give you minimize pain.
If you just went for a run, you might want to stretch your calves, if you just terminated a tennis match you will probably need to stretch your shoulders.
ROM-improvement stretching is not a technical term, but it summarizes the aim of this type of stretching: Improve a joint Range Of Movement.
This is a fascinating topic to me, and it reserves many surprises.
First of all, it might sound weird, but to improve a muscle (or group of muscles) flexibility you just need 15 minutes of stretching per day. The best part of it is that you do not need to have them all together, you can spread your 15 minutes of stretching throughout the whole day! Stretching for 15 minutes in a row once, or 1 minute for 15 times in 24 hours, will give you the same result!
The only thing you need to pay attention to is that 15 minutes of passive stretching is a deep and long stretching session, and you MUST warm-up beforehand and cool-down afterwards.
To prepare your body, you can simply have some active light stretching, and you can just move a bit the joint to allow your blood vessels to increase the amount of blood in that area.
Hence, you can start your stretching in a position that gives you just an uncomfortable sensation; only after a couple of minutes, and if you feel ready, you can push a little bit your body, keeping in mind that you do not have to feel pain (just a tiny bit is allowed if you are hungry of results, but do not exaggerate). Do not be ashamed if you finish your stretching in the same position you started; the patient is the key to improve flexibility.
Lastly, you can not go back from your stretching position to your normal life without passing through a slow and calm recovery. Slowly go back from your stretching position to your normal range of movement, it can take 40 seconds to minutes depending on how deep your stretching was. Just relax, and enjoy the after-stretch feeling. If you trained properly, you should feel relaxed and painless.
To conclude I am going to give you a morning tip: Stretching will wake you up! It’s not magic; it is just the power of the increased blood supply to your joints.
When you sleep you lay in the same position for hopefully 6 to 9 hours, your muscles turn off and get stiff, your heart will reduce the blood supply to a minimum wage, and your body will try to consume as less energy as possible. That is why when you wake up is suggested to move your joint, nice and slowly so that your body will give your muscles more oxygen, your muscles will then get softer, and that will wake you up in just about 15 minutes!
You don’t need something long nor hard, just put some nice music and enjoy a light and relaxing full-body stretching. What muscles should I stretch and what position should I use to stretch better in the morning? Well, that can be the next Pill of Flexibility!
Mier, B. and Muir, S. (2017) Do this warm-up and Cooldown every time you run. Available from https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/cross-training/a775986/do-this-warm-up-and-cool-down-every-time-you-run [last accessed 2.10.20]
ASFA (2020) Active vs passive stretching – knowing the difference!. Available at https://www.americansportandfitness.com/blogs/fitness-blog/active-vs-passive-stretching-know-the-difference#:~:text=If%20the%20stretch%20is%20reliant,muscle%20groups%20prior%20to%20activity [last accessed 2.10.20]