Stretching does a world of good for your flexibility and overall physical comfort. Think about how much better you perform any task when your muscles are loose and warm, rather than tight and cold. However, stretching improperly can create the exact opposite of what you want, even causing injuries and resulting inflexibility. To avoid painful injuries and get the most out of your stretching routine, avoid these common mistakes.
1. Stretching cold
We tend to think of stretching as a warm-up, but in reality, you need to warm up a little bit before stretching. That means working the muscles enough to break a sweat. It takes only ten minutes or so – you could jog the stairs in your home a couple of times, do some jumping jacks, or even just run in place. A brisk walk with the dog would do the trick as well. Stretching when your muscles are cold is likely to cause a tear or rip because those muscle fibers are shortened after a long period of rest and not ready to lengthen rapidly.
You may have heard the moral of the story of the rabbit and the hare – “slow and steady wins the race.” The same applies to stretching. When you bounce at the end of your stretch in an effort to go just a bit farther, it can also lead to injury. Often called “ballistic stretching,” the bouncing action triggers a reaction in the muscle that keeps it taut and unable to relax, locking you up instead of loosening you up. Instead, gradually elongate your stretch and hold it at the further point you can comfortably go for 10-15 seconds before releasing. You can do this move several times.
3. Trying too hard
Flexibility is something that must be worked up to; it doesn’t come all at once. Stretching too far, too fast is a recipe for disaster. You should be stretching far enough to feel slight discomfort, but never actual pain. Not only can this tear muscle fiber, it can damage the tendons that hold muscle to bone. Over time you will notice that you can go farther without experiencing pain, but only if you can remain patient with the process.
4. Incorrect positioning
If you are stretching but don’t feel it where you expect to, your position may be to blame. With such a wide range of motion available to the human body, you need to be relatively precise to target specific areas. You can help determine where you are hitting by running your hand along your muscles, gently probing for the one that feels tight. Then slowly release the stretch and verify that the muscle has loosened as well.
5. Holding your breath
One of the most common stretching disciplines is yoga. If you’ve ever done it, you know that it focuses a lot on breathing through the stretches, and there’s a good reason for that. Deep, even breathing while stretching increases circulation, helps release physical and mental tension, and supports your efforts to increase flexibility and range of motion. When you hold your breath, all of your muscles tighten, which is not only the opposite of what you want, it leaves you more vulnerable to injury.
6. Stretching an injury
When you have sustained an injury to a muscle, it’s tempting to stretch it as it heals so that it doesn’t rebuild in a way that is tighter than before. Unfortunately, stretching an injured muscle will only damage it more. You will likely have experienced a setback after it heals, but it’s still important to wait until you’re pain-free to begin a new low-intensity stretching regimen. If you’ve experienced pain for more than a couple of days, we recommend seeking a doctor’s advice.
7. Avoiding certain areas
Chances are you spend a good amount of time stretching your neck and shoulders, especially if you sit at a desk all day. And if you unwind with a nice run after work, you may assume that your hips and hamstrings are already getting enough attention. In reality, you’d do well to stretch these muscles after they’ve been good and warmed up. The most effective stretching routine will hit all of your major muscle groups, including some hard-to-reach ones.
8. Stretching along a single plane
This follows from our last tip about stretching all of your muscles, not just the ones that didn’t get specifically worked during your cardio routine. For true flexibility, you need to train your muscles to support multidirectional movement patterns. If your main source of cardio is running (for example), that is a primarily back-and-forth movement. Afterwards, take some time to stretch your leg and hip muscles in all directions. Otherwise, you may find your muscles protest when you try to move side-to-side.
9. Forgetting to stretch
Yep, one of the most common stretching mistakes is forgetting to do it at all. This is a problem that plagues the sedentary to the professional athletes alike. Warming up the body with some dynamic stretches, such as lunges, is key to better performance in any physical activity. Static stretches afterward are where you can begin to achieve gains in overall flexibility. Avoiding (or simply forgetting) either type decreases blood flow to the muscles and limits flexibility over time.
10. Looking for a quick fix
Much like a diet, whether it’s designed to lose weight or to bulk up muscle, building flexibility through stretching also takes time. Don’t get discouraged when you fail to see immediate gains. In fact, flexibility is something that once built needs to be maintained through continued effort. So if you can incorporate daily stretching into your life for the long haul, you will find that you remain more flexible and stave off the aches and pains of aging.
Like any form of exercise, stretching needs to be done correctly in order to provide the best results and prevent injury. But as long as you avoid these most common stretching mistakes, you’ll be reaping rewards. Just remember to give some attention to all of your muscles, and be prepared to adjust your routine as you make gains or have losses (which are to be expected due to aging, injury, or periods of inactivity). On top of all the other benefits of stretching – flexibility, better blood flow, and relaxation – it just feels great!