The Basic Rules for Safe and Effective Stretching
As with most activities, there are rules and guidelines to ensure safety.
Stretching is no exception – it can be extremely dangerous and harmful if done incorrectly.
It is vitally important that the following rules be adhered to, both for safety and for maximizing the potential benefits of stretching.
There is often confusion and concern about which stretches are good and which stretches are bad.
In most cases, someone has told that they should not do this stretch or that stretch, or that this is a good stretch and that is a bad stretch.
Are there only good stretches and bad stretches? Is there no middle ground? And if there are only good and bad stretches, how do we decide which ones are good and which ones are bad?
1. There is no such thing as a good or bad stretch!
Just as there are no good or bad exercises, there are no good or bad stretches: only what is appropriate for the specific requirements of the individual.
So a stretch that is perfectly okay for one person may not be okay for someone else.
Let me use an example. A person with a shoulder injury would not be expected to do push-ups or freestyle swimming, but that does not mean that these are bad exercises.
Now, consider the same scenario from a stretching point of view. That same person should avoid shoulder stretches, but that does not mean that all shoulder stretches are bad.
The stretch itself is neither good nor bad. It is the way the stretch is performed and by whom it is being performed that makes stretching either effective and safe, or ineffective and harmful.
To place a particular stretch into a category of “good” or “bad” is foolish and dangerous.
To label a stretch as “good” gives people the impression that they can do that stretch whenever and however they want and it will not cause them any problems.
The specific requirements of the individual are what is important!
Remember, stretches are neither good nor bad. However, when choosing a stretch there are a number of precautions and “checks” we need to perform before giving that stretch the okay.
1. Firstly, make a general review of the individual. Are they healthy and physically active, or have they been leading a sedentary lifestyle for the past 5 years? Are they a professional athlete? Are they recovering from a serious injury? Do they have aches, pains, or muscle and joint stiffness in any area of their body?
2. Secondly, make a specific review of the area, or muscle group, to be stretched. Are the muscles healthy? Is there any damage to the joints, ligaments, tendons, etc.? Has the area been injured recently, or is it still recovering from an injury?
If the muscle group being stretched is not 100% healthy, avoid stretching this area altogether.
Work on recovery and rehabilitation before moving on to specific stretching exercises.
If, however, the individual is healthy and the area to be stretched is free from injury, then apply the following to all stretches.
2. Warm Up Prior to Stretching
This first rule is often overlooked and can lead to serious injury if not performed effectively.
Trying to stretch muscles that have not been warmed is like trying to stretch old, dry rubber bands: they may snap.
Warming up prior to stretching does a number of beneficial things, but primarily its purpose is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity.
One of the ways it achieves this is by helping to increase the body’s core temperature while also increasing the body’s muscle temperature.
By increasing muscle temperature we are helping to make the muscles loose, supple, and pliable.
This is essential to ensure the maximum benefit is gained from our stretching.
The correct warm-up also has the effect of increasing both our heart rate and our respiratory rate.
This increases blood flow, which in turn increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles.
All this helps to prepare the muscles for stretching.
A correct warm-up should consist of light physical activity.
Both the intensity and duration of the warm-up (or how hard and how long) should be governed by the fitness level of the participating athlete, although a correct warm-up for most people should take about 10 minutes and result in a light sweat.
3. Stretch Before and After Exercise
The question often arises: “Should I stretch before or after exercise?” This is not an either/or situation: both are essential.
It is no good stretching after exercise and counting that as our pre-exercise stretch for next time.
Stretching after exercise has a totally different purpose to stretching before exercise. The two are not the same.
The purpose of stretching before exercise is to help prevent injury. Stretching does this by lengthening the muscles and tendons, which in turn increases our range of movement.
This ensures that we are able to move freely without restriction or injury occurring.
However, stretching after exercise has a very different role. Its purpose is primarily to aid in the repair and recovery of the muscles and tendons.
By lengthening the muscles and tendons, stretching helps to prevent tight muscles and delayed muscle soreness that usually accompanies strenuous exercise.
After exercise, our stretching should be done as part of a cool-down. The cool-down will vary depending on the duration and intensity of exercise undertaken, but will usually consist of 5–10 minutes of very light physical activity and be followed by 5–10 minutes of static stretching exercises.
An effective cool-down involving light physical activity and stretching will help to rid waste products from the muscles, prevent blood pooling, and promote the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
All this assists in returning the body to a pre-exercise level, thus aiding the recovery process.
4. Stretch Only to the Point of Tension
Stretching is not an activity that is meant to be painful; it should be pleasurable, relaxing, and very beneficial. However, many people believe that to get the most from their stretching, they need to be in constant pain.
This is one of the greatest mistakes we can make when stretching. Let me explain why.
When the muscles are stretched to the point of pain, the body employs a defence mechanism called the 'stretch reflex'.
This is the body’s safety measure to prevent serious damage occurring to the muscles, tendons, and joints.
The stretch reflex protects the muscles and tendons by contracting them, thereby preventing them from being stretched.
So to avoid the stretch reflex, avoid pain. Never push the stretch beyond what is comfortable.
Only stretch to the point where tension can be felt in the muscles. This way, injury will be avoided and the maximum benefits from stretching will be achieved.
5. Stretch All Major Muscles and Their Opposing Muscle Groups
When stretching, it is vitally important that we pay attention to all the major muscle groups in the body.
Just because a particular sport may place a lot of emphasis on the legs, for example, that does not mean that one can neglect the muscles of the upper body in a stretching routine.
All the muscles play an important part in any physical activity, not just a select few. Muscles in the upper body, for example, are extremely important in any running sport.
They play a vital role in the stability and balance of the body during the running motion. Therefore it is important to keep them both flexible and supple.
Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle that acts against it. For example, the muscles in the front of the leg (the quadriceps) are opposed by the muscles in the back of the leg (the hamstrings).
These two groups of muscles provide a resistance to each other to balance the body.
If one of these groups of muscles becomes stronger or more flexible than the other group, it is likely to lead to imbalances that can result in injury or postural problems.
For example, hamstring tears are a common injury in most running sports. They are often caused by strong quadriceps and weak, inflexible hamstrings.
This imbalance puts a great deal of pressure on the hamstrings and can result in a muscle tear or strain.
6. Stretch Gently and Slowly
Stretching gently and slowly helps to relax our muscles, which in turn makes stretching more pleasurable and beneficial.
This will also help to avoid muscle tears and strains that can be caused by rapid, jerky movements.
7. Breathe Slowly and Easily While Stretching
Many people unconsciously hold their breath while stretching. This causes tension in our muscles, which in turn makes it very difficult to stretch.
To avoid this, remember to breathe slowly and deeply during all stretching exercises.
This helps to relax our muscles, promote blood flow, and increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to our muscles.
Below are examples of 5 common stretches for helping to keep the back healthy, and avoid the development of active trigger points, and painful injuries.
Please bear in mind the rules above!
Sit in a squatting position while facing a door edge or stable pole, then hold onto the door edge with one hand and lean backwards away from the door.
Lean backwards and let the weight of your body do the stretching. Relax your upper back, allowing it to round out and your shoulder-blades to separate.
Muscles Being Stretched
Primary muscles: Trapezius. Rhomboids. Latissimus dorsi. Posterior deltoid.
Secondary muscle: Teres major.
While standing, use your hands to bring one knee into your chest.
Make sure you have good balance when performing this stretch, or lean against an object to stop yourself from falling over.
Muscles Being Stretched
Primary muscle: Gluteus maximus.
Secondary muscle: Iliocostalis lumborum.
Kneel on the ground and reach forward with your hands. Let your head fall forward and push your buttocks towards your feet.
Use your hands and fingers to walk your arms forward and extend this stretch, but do not lift your backside off your feet.
Muscles Being Stretched
Primary Muscle: Latissimus Dorsi
Secondary muscles: Teres major. Serratus anterior.
Kneel on your hands and knees. Let your head fall forwards and arch your back upwards.
Perform this stretch slowly and deliberately, resting your weight evenly on both your knees and hands.
Muscles Being Stretched
Primary muscles: Semispinalis cervicis and thoracis. Spinalis cervicis and thoracis. Longissimus cervicis and thoracis. Splenius cervicis. Iliocostalis cervicis and thoracis. Secondary muscles: Interspinales. Rotatores.
Lie on your back, keep your knees together and raise them slightly. Keep your arms out to the side and then let your back and hips rotate with your knees.
Keep your shoulders on the ground and avoid lifting them during this stretch. Do not throw your legs over to the side; simply let the weight of your legs do most of the stretching for you.
Muscles Being Stretched
Primary muscles: Semispinalis thoracis. Spinalis thoracis. Longissimus thoracis. Iliocostalis thoracis. Iliocostalis lumborum. Multifidus. Rotares. Interspinales.
Secondary muscles: Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
Read about Six Types of Stretches and When You Should Use Them here.
About the author
Stuart Hinds is one of Australia’s leading soft tissue therapists, with over 27 years of experience as a practitioner, working with elite sports athletes, supporting Olympic teams, educating and mentoring others as well as running a highly successful clinic in Geelong.
Stuart has a strong following of practitioners across Australia and globally who tap into his expertise as a soft-tissue specialist. He delivers a range of highly sought after seminars across Australia, supported by online videos, webinars and one-on-one mentoring to help support his colleagues to build successful businesses.
In 2016, Stuart was awarded a lifetime membership to Massage & Myotherapy Australia for his significant support and contribution to the industry.
This trigger point therapy blog is intended to be used for information purposes only and is not intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or to substitute for a medical diagnosis and/or treatment rendered or prescribed by a physician or competent healthcare professional. This information is designed as educational material, but should not be taken as a recommendation for treatment of any particular person or patient. Always consult your physician if you think you need treatment or if you feel unwell.