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Starting a Stretching Routine: Do’s and Don’ts
Stretching has become popular in fitness programs, as preparation for athletes and in rehabilitation after injury or for certain muscle conditions. There are several benefits to be gained from stretching, but there are also health risks involved.
Current stretching recommendations are based on medical evaluations of athletes, patients, and people of different ages and physical abilities. However, much of the research into athletic performance enhancement, sports injury prevention, and even how muscle tissue adapts to stretching, remains inconclusive. For that reason, determining which movements are best – and evaluating the results of any stretching routine – is relative to who is doing these exercises and why.
If you want to add stretching to your daily exercise or rehab routine, the following tips may help get you started. Remember to begin slowly and consult with a trainer or physical therapist.
- Talk to your doctor. If you have a chronic orthopaedic condition or a joint or muscle injury, talk to your doctor before beginning any fitness routine that involves stretching.
- See a trainer or physical therapist to evaluate your muscle strength and range of motion. They can use that assessment to help you develop a stretching routine that suits your needs and abilities.
- Correct your technique. Once you make some progress and wish to get more aggressive with your stretching routine, remember that correct technique is a top priority. Work closely with a trainer whenever possible to perfect your form before moving to advanced levels.
- Focus on the major areas of your body that help with mobility, such as your calves, hamstrings, hips, and quadriceps (thighs). For upper-body relief, use moves that stretch the shoulders, neck, and lower back.
- Exert your muscles, but don’t stretch until it hurts. Proper stretches should never cause pain.
- Moderation is important. You will notice right away that stretching puts stress on your muscles and joints. If you overstress muscle groups multiple times a day, you risk weakening the tissue, which can lead to damage.
- Know your limits. Some research has shown that stretching the muscles before they're warmed up can cause damage. Exercising first gets blood flowing to muscle tissue, making it pliable. However, that applies only to light physical activity, such as a quick walk, before stretching. There are many opinions about the results of stretching before or after exercise and before engaging in athletic activities. You may already have started to develop some tiny tears in certain muscle tissue and tendons after a very hard run, due to the extreme exertion. So it may not be wise to follow extreme exertion with an aggressive stretching routine, because that might make some of the tearing worse.
- Avoid ballistic stretches, commonly called “bouncing.” Ballistic stretching uses the force of your body in motion to push muscles beyond the normal range of motion (for example, bouncing down repeatedly to touch your toes). This type of stretching can lead to injury because it does not allow your muscles to adjust to, and relax in, the stretched position.
- Don’t get discouraged if progress is slow. Certain bad postures or repetitive motions can take years to decrease your mobility, and a long, sedentary period after illness or injury may have a worse impact. So you shouldn’t expect any series of stretches to restore full range of motion in a few weeks. It may take several weeks just to regain flexibility in certain muscles.
- Don’t overwork your muscles. Once you achieve an ideal range of motion for a joint in any direction, you should stop doing that movement during that workout. Tired and overworked muscles won't reach a full range of motion.
- Don’t quit. Once you begin getting back some flexibility, stay with the process. You may feel better after several sessions, and that’s an important part of your progress. But you need occasional evaluations from a health care professional or trainer to measure how much your range of motion has improved.
UAB Orthopaedics develops comprehensive care plans to restore or improve mobility and reduce or eliminate pain. We work closely with other medical specialties, including imaging, physical rehabilitation, nutritional therapy, and oncology. Learn more here.
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