Stretching is an important requirement to proper health and fitness, and it continues to amaze me how many people don’t take it seriously. For example, I see a lot of karate students who show up to the dojo five minutes before start of class and jump into it cold. There are significant risks to such a practice, which many students seem to forget. Yes, I know what you’re thinking… In the street, you won’t have time to stretch if you get into an altercation and had to defend yourself. While this is certainly true, we stretch and train our body so that in the event of a cold start such as a street fight, your body is conditioned and muscle memory kicks in.
There’s a significant balance between too much and too little, when it comes to stretching. Have you ever gone a full week without doing any exercise? Notice how everything feels tight and it seems a bit harder to move? This is because over time, your muscles will shorten and tighten up if you don’t stretch regularly. This is why stretching is required in order to stay flexible and mobile and to allow full and proper motion of our joints. In fact, some would argue that stretching is more about mobility than fitness. But I believe it holds some importance in both.
The key thing is to not overdo it. You should aim to stretch for anywhere from about five to ten minutes in order to ensure your muscles are warm and pliable. Not to be mistaken with an actual warmup, of course. But after about a ten to fifteen minute warmup, get to the actual workout. It is actually possible to stretch TOO much, and this can lead to injury, damage to ligaments and tendons, pulled muscles and even hypermobility.
Although most people have some form of hypermobility somewhere in their body, it’s not a good thing. Hypermobility refers to the ability of certain joints to move beyond their supposed range of motion, which is a problem that can cause it’s own batch of complications and issues. So it’s important to find a correct balance in stretching and warming up the body.
Stretching should be done right before a workout, although some argument has been made for stretching afterwards, as well. Depending on the type of workout you do, stretching after the workout can help keep the muscles flexible and help prevent stiffness and injury. But you should start by finding a comfortable corner and stretching slowly, breathing and moving comfortably. Although it can be useful to try reaching a bit, it’s important not to extend beyond what’s comfortable. Stretching can provide a feeling of tension, but it shouldn’t be consistently painful or stinging.
Once you’ve stretched and warmed up all the required muscle groups, you’ll want to slip into a warmup. Warmups can contribute to stretching and mobility, but depending on the workout you’re doing are meant to get your heart rate up and the blood pumping. So it’s important to keep the two separate, in terms of completion. Start small, going no further than what your body can comfortably reach. As you fall into a routine, you’ll likely notice that your flexibility is increasing and you can stretch farther. But don’t push it! It isn’t one of those things where if you reach it once, you can reach it again. Muscle tissues will tighten and loosen depending on how frequently you stretch and exercise and how often you don’t.
If you’ve managed to overstretch or stretch too much, you’ll notice a number of symptoms including swelling, redness and weakness of the muscle in question. In fact, it may even hurt while you’re at rest and you may not be able to use that particular overtaxed muscle for a period of time. At home treatment can include some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain meds, resting the muscle in question and using the PRICE method (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) until the injury subsides. The important thing is not to return to stretching the damaged muscle before its had a chance to heal.
If you hear a sharp popping sound while stretching, feel pain at a level that can’t be tolerated or ignore or are completely unable to move the limb associated to the muscle group, you should seek immediate medical care. You may have torn something that can only be repaired at the hospital. It’s important to use your judgement but don’t try to “tough it out,” and injuries can be become aggravated easily. You can stretch after a workout as I mentioned earlier. But if you do, keep it to a minimum as your body will already be tired and it can be easy to overdue it. ☯