The basics of stretching

If there’s one universal truth about stretching, it’s that we all should do it. Yet few of us actually do. Fitness experts say it’s the part of a workout that most people tend to skip. It can make a difference in how your muscles respond to exercise. Stretching warms your muscles, and warm muscles are more pliant.

Here’s a look at some of the truths and falsehoods about stretching.

1. The best time to stretch is after exercise, when your muscles are warm.

True and false: It’s safer to stretch a warm muscle, and warm muscles are more relaxed and have greater range of motion. However, walking briskly or jogging for five minutes, until you break a light sweat, is a sufficient warm-up for stretching. In a perfect world, you’ll stretch a few minutes into and after your workout.

2. There’s only one “right” way to stretch.

False: There are actually a half-dozen or more ways to stretch. Some of the most common are listed below.

Static stretching

Stretch a specific muscle until you feel tension and then hold the position for 15 to 60 seconds. This is considered the safest way to stretch — done gently, it allows muscles and connective tissue time to “reset” the stretch reflex.

Active isolated (AI) stretching

Stretch a specific muscle until you feel tension, and then hold the position for just one or two seconds. Often you must use a rope or your hands to get a muscle to its stretching point. Because you don’t force the muscle to stay contracted, the muscle that’s being worked actually stays relaxed. However, critics warn of the risk of overstretching, especially if using a rope.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching

Contract a muscle, release it, and then stretch, usually with the assistance of a partner who “pushes” the stretch. While PNF can be very effective, it can also be dangerous if done improperly. Pursue it only under the supervision of a physical therapist or trainer.

Ballistic or dynamic stretching

Move slowly into a stretched position, and then bounce once you get there. This is what many people learned in gym class, but now most experts agree this method is dangerous because it puts too much pressure on the muscle and connective tissue.

3. Stretching should be uncomfortable.

False: Actually, if stretching is painful, you’re going too far. Instead, move into a stretch, and stop when you feel tension. Breathe deeply while you hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Then relax, and repeat the stretch, trying to move a little bit further into it during the second stretch.

4. You should hold a stretch for at least 15 seconds.

True: Most experts now agree that holding a stretch for 15 to 30 seconds is sufficient.

Overhead stretch (for shoulders, neck, and back)

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees and hips relaxed. Interlace your fingers and extend your arms above your head, palms up. Take 10 slow, deep breaths, elongating the stretch on each exhale. Relax, and repeat once more.

Torso stretch (for lower back)

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent. With your hands at the small of your back, angle your pelvis forward while pointing your tailbone backward slightly; feel the stretch in your lower back. Pull your shoulders back. Hold for 10 deep breaths; repeat once more.

Cat and cow stretch

Get down on your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders, your back flat, and your toes pointed behind you. Tighten your abdominal muscles, arch your back, and drop your head down so you’re looking at your stomach. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing deeply. Now lower your back until it’s swayed, simultaneously raising your head. Hold for 10 seconds, and then return to the starting position. Repeat four times.