Stretching – why, what and how?

Stretching – that very important activity that most people think they should be doing… but should they? And do you know what you’re stretching when (if!) you stretch? Do you know why you’re stretching? How long should you stretch for? And most relevantly:




Pic 1

? So what’s happening when I stretch?

Pic 1: Our muscles consist of lots of muscle fibures all bundled together. Each muscle fibre is made up of myofibrils and each myofibril is made up of thousands of sarcomeres in series. Each sarcomere is made up of two proteins that overlap. Contract (shorten) the muscle and the proteins overlap more. Stretch (lengthen) the muscle and the proteins overlap less.

 ? So when I stretch does the muscle lengthen?

Yes temporarily, then it fairly quickly, within minutes and hours, returns to its initial length.

? And if I stretch every day for 6 weeks will the muscle lengthen permanently?

Possibly not – here the evidence gets muddy. Most likely the length of the muscle does increase slightly every day and over the 6 weeks it may gradually lengthen a little over all. But it’s still returning pretty much to its baseline once you’ve finished stretching. And if you stop stretching regularly it’ll likely return roughly to where it was before you took up stretching.

? So if I’m not literally making the muscle longer then what IS happening?

When you stretch you are in fact:

Increasing your TOLERANCE to stretch

bendypersonThe more you stretch the more EVERYTHING – nerves, brain, muscles, tendons – gets used to being stretched and the less they complain when they are stretched. Therefore little by little you’re able to stretch further. So:

Stretching is of benefit

though perhaps not for the reasons originally thought. And to stay stretchy:

You need to keep stretching.

Here’s a brief summary of when and how it’s thought you should be stretching:

  1. Before exercise –  Dynamic stretching: stretch via movement e.g. arm circles, hip circles, twists, lunges – constant movement, no stopping and holding a position. A bit like the bouncy stretches that we used to do then got told not to
  2. After exercise – Static stretching: adopt a position where you can ‘feel’ a streth and then hold this stationary position for 30-60 seconds.
  3. Stretching after injury – Static stretching again, as above and stretching a few times daily, every day, possibly the more intense the stretch the better.
  4. Older than 65 – Static stretching should be included as part of a regular exerise regime.

? Should I be stretching for general fitness?

It probably benefits most of us (naturally super-bendy types excluded) to do some stretching a few times a week.

? What stretches should I be doing?

Aha! The holy grail! There’s a beautiful set of illustrations available here which show what you’re actually stretching during some common stretches. And with the aid of a bendy seven year old body I’ve shown below a few key ones that I think will benefit.


HAMSTRINGS (back of thigh): keep straight leg very straight and lean forward to feel stretch.


CALVES: toes point forward on both feet, keep back heel on floor.


HIP FLEXORS: keep upper body upright, drift hips forwards til stretch felt at front of hip on back leg.


SHOULDER: keep arm still against wall and lean forward/turn away from arm.


NECK: tuck chin in as high and as close to chest as possible to stretch back of neck.


HIP ADDUCTORS (inner thigh): toes forward on both feet, bend one knee til feel stretch, you can lean sideways as shown to stretch side of body too.

So have a go, pop them into your routine if you have one, or start one up if you don’t! Remember start small, ease in gently, a little and often. Let me know how you get on, which stretches you like and are there any amazing ones that I’ve missed? Happy stretching!

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