It's often ignored or forgotten or tacked on at the end. I've been guilty of it myself. But stretching is possibly the most important part of your exercise routine and the most beneficial to your fitness and health.
Whether you're a weightlifter or an office worker you put your muscles through repetitive movement and create tension. The easiest way to relieve this is to stretch. It doesn't need to take all day, although the more work you do the longer you should stretch.
The benefits of stretching are not just releasing the muscle tension and it's definitely not just about being able to do the splits.
Stretching and relaxing the muscles allows nutrients and fluid to get to the muscles more easily, which in turn helps keep them supple and easier to move.
Muscles work in opposing pairs so having a tight muscle on one side means the muscles on the other side have to work harder, meaning you use more energy and risk injury. This is true whether you are trying to lift a weight, lengthen into your splits or get up from your desk.
On that point a lot of the little niggles and aches we get are from tightness in some area causing the body to work in a less than optimal way. Stretching can often relieve a lot of these issues before they become major problems.
The most important thing I have learned is not to overstretch. There are two ways to do this, one is length and one is time.
The first is fairly straight forward, when you stretch you only want to bring the muscle (or muscles) to the point that you begin to feel it. Always base this on the tightest muscle!
If you go straight to the point where your muscle is straining the muscle will contract to protect itself, this not only stops the stretch but also tightens the muscle more. Start easy and as you feel the muscle relax stretch deeper in small increments.
The second is time. How long should you stretch for? There are many different theories from the 2 second stretch to the 2 mins. To start with you should stretch until you feel the release of tension, if you are over-stretching this could take a kong time. Usually I find between 30-60secs but I base it on breathing, about 10-12 full breaths, and the feel.
If you want to change the shape of your body then you may want to stretch for longer. You could stretch one muscle group for 30mins or more! But it depends what you want to do with those muscles afterward. If you want to train you don't want your muscles so stretched they are like rubber, but at the end of the day if your heading to bed after a long stretch is fine. Just stick to the same pattern, feel the beginning of tension, hold and breath, release, go to next point of tension, repeat.
Another good point to remember is that stretching is like a workout for your muscles. You don't want to subject them to a heavy stretch session right after a heavy workout, just let them ease out. Do the big stretch later or on a different day.
Stretching is a workout
And the final thing about stretching, for now. Stretching is like a workout. Like all workout routines it requires consistency, progression and recovery.
Like any workout there are days when you don't feel like doing it, there are days when you don't feel the benefit.
Like any workout there are times when you feel it's not going any where, there are times you feel you've plateaued.
Like any workout some will feel great, some feel awful. But it works and it builds.
It can build towards tightness and pain. Or it can build towards a free and supple body and easy movement.