Stretching Does More Than Feel Good – It Has Serious Benefits For Your Bod
Unless you practice yoga regularly, it can be easy to neglect stretching as a part of your regular workout routine. Sure, you know you should take at least a few minutes to do it daily – or at the very least, before or after you exercise – but meh. It’s not such a big deal to skip it, right?
Not so fast. Stretching has a number of significant benefits, the most notable of which is that it will help you stay active longer by helping to prevent injury. That’s no small thing, especially for such a relatively small thing to ask of yourself.
Below, experts unpack the benefits of lengthening your limbs, and offer dos and don’ts for stretching safely and properly.
The Benefits of Stretching
1. It Keeps Muscles Mobile
Not to state the obvious, but stretching helps keep muscles flexible, which is necessary for increasing range of motion in the joints.
“Not everyone needs to be able to hold a split, just like not everyone needs to do barbell training or handstands. Instead, a good measure of healthy, useful flexibility is that we can move comfortably through full ranges of motions, engaging the right muscles at the right times, in activities that matter to us,” says certified personal trainer Rachel Trotta. “Being appropriately flexible can help us achieve other goals pain-free, whether it’s being able to squat heavier or to feel more comfortable in yoga class.”
Muscle flexibility or mobility can also help increase muscle strength and prevent injury, says celebrity stretch lymph specialist Andrea Carlisle. “Without the proper recovery and movement provided by regular stretching, muscles stay stagnant, tight, and short, which can lead to injury and pain,” she says. “Injury and body pain will cause less activity and stamina, leading to a reduction in muscle mass and strength. It’s a vicious cycle.”
2. It Improves Performance of Physical Activities
Stretching, says Carlisle, can also improve athletic performance. “You can’t perform to your fullest if you’re not stretching,” she says. Research specifically shows that engaging in a type of stretching known as dynamic stretching – stretches that get that body moving and aren’t held for long periods of time – before engaging in physical activity is proven to enhance both range of motion and muscle power.
3. It’s ‘Anti-Aging’ For the Body
According to Carlisle, there’s another, lesser-known but hugely important benefit to stretching. “It’s one of the most anti-aging things you can do for your body – I can always tell how youthful someone is by how flexible they are and how open their hips are,” she says. “People can do all these anti-aging things, but being mobile and flexible will aid you more than anything else. As Joseph Pilates would say, you’re only as young as your spine is flexible.”
One of the reasons for this anti-aging effect, says Carlisle, is that constant circulation is “the key to youth in general.” If you don’t regularly move your body, it can hasten physiological hallmarks of aging, including weakened bones and muscles, hypertension, and a sluggish digestive system. “Stretching helps improve circulation, but it also prevents injury, which keeps you more active, which in turn keeps things circulating,” says Carlisle.
4. It Can Mediate the Effects of Stress
Muscles tighten up in response to stress. This tension is typically released once the stressor passes, but the ongoing stress many of us experience in response to modern life can cause chronic muscle tension, which can lead to headaches, back pain, and other chronic ailments. Stretching helps alleviate these physical symptoms of emotional distress.
And according to Carlisle, stretching can also aid in emotional release. “We store everything in our bodies, whether it’s childhood trauma, stress, negative emotions, sadness, anger, rage, or frustration. It’s all trapped in the fascia of our muscles,” she says. “Stretching and releasing that out of the muscles in general makes for a stronger body, better [athletic] performance, and a clearer mind.”
5. It May Improve Your Sex Life
If all of this somehow has yet to sway you, Carlisle has one more less-than-obvious benefit to offer up: better sex.
“Stretching is a great way to enhance your sexual performance and sex life in general,” she says. “Not only does it boost circulation, which has a direct correlation to your level of arousal, but it also improves your flexibility and stamina – and who doesn’t want to be flexible in the bedroom?”
Important Areas of Focus For Stretching
Even if we (now) know the benefits of stretching, it can still be difficult to find time to fit long stretching routines into our daily lives. And while Carlisle believes it’s important to stretch everything, she says there are some areas she recommends prioritizing when time is tight. (Like your muscles – heh.)
“We’re constantly hunched over phones and computers all day, and over time, it’s straining your lower back,” Carlisle says. “So it’s important to do any kind of shoulder opening-stretch, like heart-openers.”
Hamstrings and Calves
According to Carlisle, if your hamstrings are really tight, it can also strain your lower back. “The hamstrings and glutes are connected to the lower back, and the calves are connected to the hamstrings,” says Carlisle. “So if one muscle is tight, it strains the other muscles around it, which then leads to tightness and pain in those muscles and so on. It’s a domino effect.”
Hips and Inner Thighs
“Stretching keeps your hips strong, and having strong hips is very important,” Carlisle says. “We need our hips for everything – walking, running, lifting things, working our jobs, sports, taking care of our children, giving birth, etc. Strong hips keep us fully active in all areas of life.” Even though it’s commonly assumed that our hips will “go bad” as we age, Carlisle says this is not supposed to happen, and can be prevented by regular stretching.
The inner thighs, meanwhile, play a vital role in stabilizing the pelvis and hip joints and maintaining alignment of the legs and pelvis. “Having strong inner thighs also enhances stability and balance during various activities and sports like basketball, tennis, and more,” says Carlisle. “And stretching your inner thighs eases tension in the legs and groin and increases the range of motion in your leg muscles.”
Finally, Carlisle Rodriguez says you probably want to make time in your day to stretch your wrists, which are prone to getting bent out of shape due to technology use. “People should really be stretching their wrists, because of how we’re using our thumbs and fingers for all these technologies,” she says. “It’s really important, because there’s been a rise in wrist injuries and chronic wrist pain.”
How to Stretch Effectively
Stretch After Your Workout
Doing some dynamic stretches prior to your workout can help warm up your body before rigorous activity. However, static stretches are best left for the cooldown. “Flexibility work is far more effective once your body is already mobilized and heated from exercise, so it’s smart to take advantage of that at the end of a workout – or in between sets, as interesting new research is suggesting,” Trotta says.
And because stretching has a calming effect, Trotta also says engaging in stretches at the end of a workout can help your body’s nervous system return to neutral.
One of the most important “dos” of stretching, says Carlisle, is intentional breathing. “You’re always supposed to inhale when you’re getting positioned into your stretch and exhale out when you’re releasing into the stretch.” Exhaling into the stretch, she says, helps you get deeper into stretch, which enhances the benefits.
Carlisle also recommends slowing your stretches down – at least when you’re engaging in static (versus dynamic) stretches.
“Everyone’s in a hurry, and so they stretch too quickly and aren’t holding their poses or stretches,” she says. “I don’t want to give you a specific time prescription because I believe you can use your intuition to determine when you’ve stretched a specific body part for long enough. But I feel like taking your time and holding the pose is so important, because you might even hurt yourself if you stretch too quickly.”
Practice Good Form
“It’s critical to maintain intent during a stretch, knowing which muscle you’re trying to lengthen. For example, you’re not stretching your hamstrings when you touch your toes if you’re rounding your lower back,” says Carlisle.
If you’re not certain of your form, ask your class instructor or trainer, or try out a session with a stretch specialist like Carlisle. You can also look into classes at StretchLab for a primer on form.
According to Trotta, you may also want to add load – weight or resistance – to stretches in order to maximize results. One example she gives is doing dumbbell Romanian deadlifts to stretch your hamstrings instead of holding a forward fold endlessly.
“The eccentric lengthening (the lowering part) of exercises like this can help build control and stability into your muscle memory, making you ultimately more flexible,” Trotta says. “This is also where partner stretching can be amazing – a partner can provide resistance for you to push against, which helps your muscles build more control and intelligence in a deeper range of motion.”
Know When to Strengthen vs Stretch
Although stretching is often indicated for muscle tightness, Trotta says this isn’t always the case. Instead, it may signify a need to strengthen your muscles. “A lot of tightness isn’t coming directly from your muscle. It’s coming from your brain and nervous system telling your muscle to stay contracted, because it’s trying to create more stability around a joint,” she says. “For example, if your hip flexors feel extremely tight all the time, it’s fine to introduce some stretching, but I would also do plenty of hip flexor exercises as well – like slow banded mountain climbers – to help with the sensations of tightness.”