Stretching is thought of as a component of warm ups and cool downs and indeed, it plays an important role in these phases of preparing the body for actions about to take place during a workout and lengthening muscles post workout back towards their original state. However Stretching is not just a component of warm up and cool downs, its a fundamental component of 'fitness' thus true fitness is not achieved through muscle building and aerobic exercise alone.
Depending on your goal, be it health related, function or for sport and performance, flexibility training will play an important role in all these. Adaptations to FITT principles, Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type to achieve the desired result.
Benefits of a Stretching Workout
1. Improved Posture
Muscle imbalance is a cause of poor posture and and pain and discomfort in all areas of the body. General stretching will help, however for most cases targeted stretching combined with strength training on week or inhibited muscles is required.
2. Increases Mobility
Improving ranges of motion of joints and allows free movements, some exercises and every day tasks might not be possible with limited mobility, stretching will correct and allow for further progression in training whist improving the ability to perform everyday tasks.
3. Injury Prevention
Good mobility & flexibility allow for full ranges of joint movement through their planes of movement reducing injury risk and ability to cope with hyper extension of muscles.
4. Increased Performance
A sports person will of course include stretching specific programming to ensure excellent ranges of movement through actions they regular perform in their sport or activity, this reduces risk of injury and increase performance.
What stretching should you do?
Including stretching in your workout routine as a separate workout is excellent but remember to plan for your desired goals. Any workout should take into account your end result, why you need flexibility, your likes and equipment available.
The combinations of workouts for different goals is vast and varied with many types of equipment therefore, I'll not be documenting every kind of stretch and workout but getting you to think about what Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type of stretching is required to adequately and safely perform your task, activity or sport with better performance and reduced risk to injury.
If you suffer from muscle stiffness, static stretching will help lengthen tight muscles and relieve stiffness holding for 20-30 seconds or until the stretch discomfort decreases, you should be stretching to a point you feel mild discomfort but not pain.
For muscle imbalances, it's likely regularly activity or positions adopted have resulted in tight muscles, hear we would want developmental stretching (holding for a longer period up to 30 seconds and more if needed). Introducing the form roller for SMF (Self Myofascial Facilitation) would aid lengthening of very tight muscles.
A sports person will be training to allow maximum ranges of movement without risk of injury in the actions and movement patterns they perform. A combination of static, developmental, SMR and PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) will achieve this.
There is a good chance for most of us all this sounds like a different language, that's why getting the help of a professional is essential in building well planned programmes for your goals, a personal trainer is trained in advanced stretching techniques and programming, they should be your first stop for achieving your goal in a safe and effective manner.