Stretching increases your flexibility, which can lead to more muscle recruitment through better form and greater range of motion. Aside from this major benefit, it can greatly reduce the risk of injury, prevent soreness and promote faster recovery between workouts, which you can take advantage of for more growth. So how can you ease a flexibility program into your workout routine?

First of all, the warm-up and stretching portions of your workout session should not be confused. The warm-up is the physical activity that raises the temperature of your blood, muscles, tendons and ligaments. The goal here is to prepare your body’s freely moveable joint structures for vigorous physical activity while at the same time, reducing the risk of injury. The warm-up is best accomplished with a full-body rhythmic activity such as low-to-moderate intensity aerobics, stationary cycling, walking or jogging. This segment, approximately 5 minutes in length, should be intense enough to increase your body temperature, but not so demanding as to lead to fatigue.

How often should you stretch? It is recommended that flexibility exercises two or three days a week should be incorporated into your fitness program. At least four repetitions per muscle group should be completed at each session. Stretching exercises should mobilize the major muscle and tendon groups and may include your choice of stretching techniques.

How intense should a stretch be to develop flexibility? Because intensity is based on subjective factors (tension, discomfort, pain), the intensity of the stretch must be up to you. In general, stretch to the point of tension but not pain. For athletes who are undergoing rehabilitation and have healing tissues, the point before pain is reached may be sufficient to rupture already weakened areas. Remember, the best advice is to use common sense: train, but don’t strain. If you are in good condition, uninjured, and just starting a stretching program, you may feel increased muscle tightness and some muscle soreness during the first week. But as your body adapts to regular stretching, you’ll begin to see some increase in your flexibility. Likewise, once you stop your stretching program, your flexibility will gradually be lost over time.

Which type of stretching program is best for you? The types of stretching programs commonly used are classified in three general categories: static, ballistic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

Static stretching

Static stretching involves gradually easing into the stretch position and holding the position. The amount of time a static stretch is held may be anything from 6 seconds to 2 minutes. Often in static stretching you are advised to move further into the stretch position as the stretch sensation subsides.

Ballistic stretching

Ballistic stretching means bobbing, bouncing or using some type of moving pressure to stretch the target muscles. While working into the required stretch position, movements should initially be slow then gradually gain speed as repetitions increase.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a type of flexibility exercise, which combines muscle contraction and relaxation with passive and partner-assisted stretching.

Most flexibility-training research centers focus on the static method and its effect on everything from relaxation to sports performance. The original research on the benefits of static or reach and hold flexibility was conducted in the 1960’s by noted physiologist Herbert DeVries, who observed that static stretching helped to reduce muscular soreness. It is thought that muscular distress produces “microspasms” in affected muscles. Research has shown that static stretching definitely decreases electrical activity and muscle spasms. This is why static stretching is recommended after resistance training or vigorous activity: It helps reduce delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS), which results when heavily exercised or stressed muscle responds by taking on fluid, temporarily decreasing spasms in order to repair itself. Stretch after heavy exercise and you won’t get as sore later.

Ballistic stretching is just as effective at developing flexibility as are static methods. There is a movement in sports toward ballistic stretching, especially as the final component to a scientific warm-up. Use of ballistic stretching initially requires a better than average level of conditioning to begin with, and no orthopedic problems. In addition, ballistic stretching is not really as effective at decreasing muscular soreness. Also it is often blamed for causing muscle tissue injuries because of the bouncing movements in which muscles are rapidly pushed in one direction until the elastic energy pulls it back.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a type of flexibility exercise that combines muscle contraction and relaxation with passive and partner-assisted stretching. The technique has received considerable attention recently, since some consider it may improve range of motion in the skeletal joints to a greater extent than conventional static stretching, though the jury is still out on this. A typical PNF stretch might start with an athlete lying on his back, with one leg raised and held straight; a partner then attempts to push the raised leg up and back, thus stretching the hamstring. The traditional approach would be to push the leg back until a stretch is felt, hold it for about ten seconds and then push it a bit further, thus increasing the range of motion. By contrast, for PNF stretch, instead of holding for a few seconds, the athlete tries to push his leg back to the ground in opposition to his partner’s efforts. Once this contraction is relaxed, the partner finds he can push the athlete’s leg through a greater range of motion.

If you want to reap full mental benefit from stretching, plan on developing a daily routine, especially after exercise. Bear in mind also the mental effects of stretching. Movement-based stretching does not appear to provide the same relaxation and tension-reduction benefits as static stretching. Practicing stretching exercises on a regular basis helps to establish a link between increasing focus and decreasing tension to the actual activity of stretching. Static stretching- combined with deep-breathing exercises has been demonstrated to decrease stress and tension.

For stretching exercises to be effective, remember to raise your body temperature first. A pre-exercise warm up should consist of 5-10 minutes of light aerobic exercise followed by stretching exercises for all major muscle groups:

  1. Shoulder Stretch
    Interlock your fingers and reach above your head. Your lower back should be flat or slightly arched inwards. You can perform this exercise sitting or standing.
  2. Triceps Stretch
    Place your left hand behind your head and reach as far down your back as possible. With your right hand grasp your left elbow and gently pull it behind the back of your head. You can perform this exercise sitting or standing. Repeat for the other arm.
  3. Chest stretch
    Clasp your hands behind your back. Gently straighten your elbows and raise your arms as high as comfortably possible. You can perform this exercise sitting or standing.
  4. Lower back Stretch
    Lying flat on your back place the sole of your right foot on your left thigh. Grasp your right knee with your left hand and gently roll it to the left. Try to get your knee as close to the floor as possible without your right shoulder leaving the floor.
  5. Groin Stretch
    Stand with your feet about 2 meters apart, toes pointing forward. Gradually shift all your weight to your right leg by bending your right knee. Your left leg stays straight. Place both your hands on your right knee for support. You can increase the starting distance between your feet for a greater stretch.
  6. Groin Stretch 2
    Sit down and place the soles of your feet together. Clasp your ankles with your hands so that your elbows rest on your knees. Gently push your knees down with your elbows until your fell the stretch.
  7. Quadriceps Stretch
    Standing upright hold onto a support with one hand (i.e. a chair) for balance. With your other hand clasp your ankle and pull your heel into your butt. Repeat for the other leg.
  8. Hamstring Stretch
    Sitting down, stretch your legs out in front of you while keeping your back flat and upright. Bend your left leg keeping your left foot flat on the floor. Slowly reach forward and try to touch your right toe with both hands. Bend from your waist keeping your lower back flat and your head up. Repeat for the other leg.
  9. Calf Stretch
    Stand arms length away from a wall and with feet shoulder width apart. Place your right foot about 2 feet in front of your left. Keeping both heels flat on the ground lean towards the wall by bending your right knee. Your left leg should stay straight. Push gently against the wall for a deeper stretch. Repeat for the left leg.with both hands. Bend from your waist keeping your lower back flat and your head up. Repeat for the other leg.
  10. Achilles Stretch
    This is exactly the same procedure as above except as you lean towards the wall let both knees bend. Rather than leaning forward you should feel like you are lowering yourself straight down. Remember to keep both heels flat on the floor. Repeat for the other leg.with both hands. Bend from your waist keeping your lower back flat and your head up. Repeat for the other leg.