Do you skip your stretches? Think cardio is more important than flexibility? Health journalist and author Helen Foster tells us why we need to make stretching part of our workouts
Rigorous exercises such as HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions and boxing are on the rise, meaning we often forgo stretching and recovery in favour of burning calories. But with new research proving the benefits of dedicated stretch classes and making deep stretching part of your workout, being limber is now considered as important as getting out of breath. Here’s why…
Why do we need to stretch?
“When we stretch a muscle, the fibres lengthen and elongate – which counteracts what happens to many of us when we sit all day, and our muscles shorten and tighten,” says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce from Surrey Physio. “Tight muscles can restrict the movement of joints, affecting how well you exercise – or cause stiffness and potentially pain or injury.”
What do we mean by stretching?
When many of us think of stretching, we think of holding the muscle in a position where you feel a pull upon it for a while – that’s called static stretching. While it’s brilliant for stress release and flexibility, it’s actually more effective after our workouts than before, according to the experts at the University of Limerick.
For your warm-up, experts recommend a technique called dynamic stretching, where you do moving exercises that elongate the muscle like squats, lunges, side bends or arm circles. A third type of stretching is fascia release, which uses foam rollers to stretch not just the muscles but also the tissue in between them. “If this muscle is tight, so is your muscle,” says Tim. A mix of these three types of stretches before, during and after your workout is key to getting all the benefits.
What are the benefits?
1. It makes your workout feel easier
Runners who used a foam roller before their workout found a hard session of squats, jumps and running drills easier than when they did the same workout without rolling first. The study’s author, Dr Disa Hatfield from the University of Rhode Island, believed the stretching didn’t just warm up the muscles, it also caused the release of endorphins that blocked feelings of fatigue. For best results, you need to ‘roll’ an area, such as your quads, for a full 90 seconds.
2. It makes you stronger
You might not want to swap one of your workout sessions for stretching, but one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found simply holding a calf muscle stretch for 30 seconds four times a day caused that muscle to increase in strength by 29% – and, interestingly, the other leg also got 10% stronger even though it wasn’t actively used. “The body likes to maintain symmetry,” says the study’s author Dr Arnold Nelson from Louisiana State University.
3. It improves your posture
“Stretching tight shoulder or chest muscles that cause rounded shoulders will improve posture,” says Tim Allardyce. And the straighter you stand, the more you naturally pull in your core, which helps to stabilise the rest of the body.
4. It helps to prevent injury
“Short, tight muscles don’t lengthen very easily. If you then explosively use that muscle through exercise, it could tear,” says Tim Allardyce. Focusing on your flexibility means you’ll have a wider range of motion. “The aim of flexibility work is to be able to freely move your body. It reduces wear and tear on active muscle tissue and connective tissue around the joints, reducing the risk of injury,” says Luke Worthington, personal trainer and sports scientist at Third Space, London.
5. It increases your power
If you’re hitting the CrossFit box, playing netball, doing kung fu class – or anything else where explosive power counts – then doing some dynamic stretching beforehand will increase the power in your kick, punch or jump by up to 9%, found by Dr Taichi Yamaguchi at Japan’s Hokkaido University. Doing 10-15 reps of each stretching move will give the best results.
6. It makes us feel calmer
When experts at Australia’s Edith Cowan University looked at what happened in the body when people stretched, they found it switched on the body’s calming nervous system, causing a drop in blood pressure and heart rate. “Focusing on feeling the muscle as it stretches also helps turn down the volume and frequency of thoughts and distractions,” says yoga teacher Karen Kirkness, who works with the University of Edinburgh.
7. It can help your heart health
Japanese research has linked greater flexibility in the body to less stiffening in the arteries – a major cause of heart disease. It’s suspected that the fall in blood pressure that stretching causes may decrease the damage to the arteries that encourages deposits to build up on the artery walls. That means stretching your body could also extend your life. Sounds good to us.
Stretch your fitness
Want to make stretching and flexibility part of your workout? Try these classes:
1. Calm By Candlelight at Virgin Active
Slow-paced yoga classes focusing on passive stretching, where you relax gradually into a deep stretch. We tried a class and nearly nodded off (in a good way).
A slightly more active class, mixing yoga with tai chi and pilates to improve flexibility and build strength.
3. Strength Yoga at Virgin Active
Specifically designed to build muscle strength, there are eight different classes to choose from.
4. Reformer Pilates at Virgin Active
A power-up Pilates class where moves are done on an apparatus that adds resistance and boosts stretching and toning.
5. Pure Stretch
An all-out stretch class designed for all abilities, they also do online home packages and send you the kit.
Inspired to try something new? Check out our 10 outdoor workouts to mix up your routine.