Stretching is critical component of physical fitness and overall health. “It keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints,” according to experts at Harvard Health. “Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.”
But before you silently applaud yourself for yesterday’s pre-workout hamstring stretch, it’s important to note that there’s a right way and a wrong way to stretch. By avoiding the following stretching mistakes, you’ll also avoid the aforementioned pains and strains. Yes, that’s right: Stretching can actually cause problems rather than prevent them when performed improperly.
We’ve got your back. (And hamstrings, quads, shoulders…)
Holding Your Breath
Ever heard someone say “Just breathe through it” or “Just breathe”? While these phrases are usually reserved for labor contractions or stressful situations, they also apply to stretching. Sometimes, we forget to consciously breathe through an uncomfortable calf stretch. But this is actually the last thing you want to do. Holding your breath or taking more shallow breaths prevents oxygen from reaching your muscles. As a result, muscles fatigue more quickly or experience unnecessary stress—the very things you’re trying to prevent by stretching.
Exercise specialists suggest keeping this breathing tip in mind: Exhale on exertion. In other words, breathe out when you are working the hardest. This may seem more logical for exercises like weight lifting (exhale when you lift, inhale when you lower), but it applies to stretching, too. Of course, steady inhales and exhales are important during any exercise. But try exhaling as you deepen into a stretch. During an inhale, you’re sending the oxygen (AKA fuel) to your muscle. As you exhale, the muscle has the necessary fuel to accommodate a deeper stretch.
“Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing,” advises experts at The Mayo Clinic. “Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and actually contribute to muscle tightness.” The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons agrees on the potential dangers of this type of ballistic stretching (stretching that involves bouncing movements), which was typically only recommended for athletes. However, according to a 2012 study by the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, ballistic stretching may no longer be recommended at all.
When you reach for your toes, come back up, and repeat, your muscles never have a moment to truly pause in a lengthened position. Instead, they are being rapidly and forcefully jerked back and forth. See why this form of stretching might lead to injury? Instead, hold a stretch for 30 seconds without coming in and out of the position, unless, of course, it’s painful. In this case, stop the stretch all together.
Not Stretching Before Working Out
You may remember stretching before every soccer practice or gym class. Stretching was considered the prerequisite to physical activity. But around 2008, studies showed that static stretching (when you hold a stretch for anywhere from a few seconds to a minute) briefly impedes athletic performance and increases the risk of injury. Today, many still believe this to be the case and forgo stretching before hitting the gym.
However, in 2016, researchers discovered that athletic performance is only hindered if stretches are held for more than 60 seconds and you then immediately become fully active, with no further warm-up. (AKA holding a stretch for over a minute then immediately breaking into a run, rather than lightly jogging at first.) For most people, this scenario isn’t very realistic.
“Outside the lab, most people are unlikely to hold a warm-up stretch for longer than about 30 seconds,” Malachy McHugh, the Director of Research at Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and the study’s co-author, tells the New York Times. “The review found few lingering negative impacts from these short stretches, especially if the volunteers followed that stretching with several minutes of jogging or other basic warm-up movements.”
The study reveals that people who stretch in this way (holding static stretches for 30 seconds or less each) for at least five minutes total during a warm-up were significantly less likely to strain or tear a muscle while exercising. So, before your next workout, dedicate a five minutes to a round of short stretching.
Just make sure not to bounce. And hey, don’t forget: Just breathe through it.