Flexibility is beneficial in most aspects of life. In negotiation, your ability to give a little here may give you the leverage to get what you most want. In psychology, the principle is put a little differently: “The person with the most flexibility controls the situation”—in other words, the more flexible you are, the more you can endure as circumstances change. Flexibility is also key to fitness. Healthy muscles are pliant, allowing you to move easily as you bend to pick something off the floor or twist to get in and out of a motor vehicle. A key indicator of flexibility is range of motion (ROM). Good flexibility will allow you to do a deep squat, for instance, or a yogi-approved down dog. Stretching, of course, is an excellent way to gain flexibility. Muscles tend to contract during recovery or long periods of inactivity. Stretching elongates the muscles and adds to their elasticity. But before you dive into a deep stretching routine, you should know a few things:
Stretch after working out—not before.
Timing is key to getting the full benefits of stretching. For decades, athletes often did lots of stretching before competitive events. But recent research suggests that static stretching immediately before activity actually decreases performance. The problem, it seems, is the timing. Muscles are most elastic and capable of stretching when they are warm. Before a workout, the muscles may be relatively cold and stiff. After a workout, they are full of blood and warm and therefore more receptive to stretching. Dedicate either immediately after a workout or sometime within the next hour to stretch a bit.
Don’t hold the stretch too long.
The benefits of stretching typically dissipate after holding a pose for more than 30 seconds. And there’s some evidence that stretching the same muscle group more than 3 times for 30 seconds can impair activity—particularly with static stretches. Rather than getting hung up on timing, move through a stretch until you feel you’re not increasing the range of motion. Hold for a few extra seconds, then move on to another stretch.
Add dynamic stretches to your routine.
Stretches that involve some movement tend to extend ROM better than static stretches, which are usually held without moving for a period of time. Dynamic stretches, which are controlled and smooth, improve mobility and, when done correctly, increase range of motion.
Experiment with new stretches. Muscle tightness varies from person to person based on activity and genetics. If your hamstrings elongate with ease but your shoulders are always tight, skip the leg stretches on some days and dedicate the time to shoulder mobility exercises. When it comes to stretching, it’s literally true that flexibility is key.