Total-body fitness requires a lot more than endurance and brute strength. If you don't have good flexibility (and many people don't), you're limiting your exercise horizons. "Nine out of ten people I work with—either new clients or people just starting a fitness program—don't understand the benefits of stretching and don't do it, partly because they don't know how to do it correctly," says Dixie Stanforth, a lecturer in the department of kinesiology at the University of Texas.
Flexibility—the ability to move muscles and joints through their full range of motion—is not only the key to unlocking your fitness potential, but it can also help keep you active and mobile in your old age. But can you blame people for not stretching, when even the experts themselves are divided on when and how to do it? Here, four things you probably didn't know about stretching and how you can use it to improve your game.
Stretching shouldn't hurt. It might be a little uncomfortable, but you should never feel pain. Instead, "stop and hold the stretch at the point where you feel tension in the muscle," says Stanforth. This is also known as the "action point." By not overdoing it, you'll be comfortable holding the stretch for longer, and you'll avoid injury. Breathing deeply throughout the stretch will help, too.
There's more than one way to stretch. There's no one "right" way to stretch, although there are many things you can do wrong. Here are the ins and outs of some of the most common stretching techniques:
Static stretching involves stretching to the farthest point that's comfortable and then holding it for about 20 seconds. "It's the safest way to stretch, and it doesn't trigger the stretch reflex—which occurs when a muscle feels itself being stretched too fast or too far and instinctively shortens to protect itself," says Stanforth. You can't lengthen a muscle if it's trying to contract; moving slowly and holding the stretch will prevent this.
Passive stretching (a type of static stretch) involves having someone else move your joints through various ranges of motion. It's commonly used for injury rehabilitation.Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (also called PNF or contract/relax stretching) is another type of static stretch that's done with a partner. Studies have shown that it can improve your range of motion more than regular static stretching.
To perform this type of stretch for your hamstrings, for example, your partner moves the leg until the muscle is stretched and then holds it there for several seconds. Next, you contract the hamstring by essentially pressing against your partner's hands (she holds your leg in place in the stretched position) for about 10 seconds. Finally, you relax for a few seconds and then your partner gently moves your leg further into the stretch (your range of motion increases). Since there is a risk of pulling a muscle with PNF, never use a partner who isn't trained in the technique, says Stanforth.
Ballistic (or dynamic) stretching is the most controversial type of stretching because it involves rhythmic movement, including bouncing—the traditional no-no of stretching—and momentum. "Athletes like gymnasts, dancers, and martial artists, whose sports require dynamic flexibility, rely on this type of stretching," says Stanforth. The downside is that if it's done incorrectly, it can cause injury. Standing and swinging your leg back and forth as high as it will go in both directions, like a place kicker getting ready to kick an extra point, is an example of ballistic stretching.
Stretching can make you a better athlete. "Flexibility imbalances, just like strength imbalances, can reduce performance and lead to injury," says Stanforth. Flexibility also increases range of motion, which improves coordination and allows freer and easier movement. So if you're a golfer and you don't have very good hip or shoulder flexibility, stretching can improve your game. But if you just can't hit the ball, stretching probably won't help.
Stretch every day. If you have an area that's particularly tight, stretch that part of your body twice a day. At the bare minimum, the American College of Sports Medicine has recommended stretching all the major muscle groups two to three times a week and holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Finally, never stretch cold muscles; make sure you do some kind of brief warm-up before you start.