Stretching as a part of a workout
Have you ever noticed how professional athletes stretch before they sprint out on the field, or pick up a tennis racket and start killing it on the court? Is it because stretching feel good? It is only natural, as stretching is of great importance when it comes to the maintenance of a healthy body and toned muscles. If you are familiar with yoga, you probably know that a lot of its poses are based on stretches. Pilates, which has hit the mainstream a long time ago, is also a low-impact workout system, which includes a lot of stretching.
Cardio or weightlifting are focused on dynamic movements for the most part, but avid supporters of these fitness approaches don’t miss the chance to incorporate some stretching into their exercise plans. Why? Because stretching improves flexibility and range of motion, benefits your posture, releases tension, relieves stress and centers your mind. Not to mention that pleasant and refreshing feeling that comes over you like a wave when you stretch the minute you crack open your eyes in the morning or fight off the desire to drift off in the middle of the day. But have you ever wondered why does stretching feel good? If yes, then this article is all you need to find the answer to this question.
What are the main purposes of stretching?
Although it is a widely accepted rule, that you should stretch to improve your flexibility, this process can offer you much more. Some people may not know that but stretching is highly important for the proper functioning of your muscles and joints. There are three main reasons why it should become a part of your everyday life. You need stretching:
To prevent injuries
Stretching as a part of a warm-up helps to prepare your body for an intense workout session, lowering the risk of possible injuries and improving your athletic performance (9).
To boost the recovery
A post-workout stretching prevents muscle soreness and reduces the recovery time. Stretching can also be prescribed as a part of a rehabilitation program to treat certain injuries. Different stretches are also used in physical therapy sessions to reduce or alleviate shoulder, back, neck, or knee pains (3).
To maintain muscle health
The most important function of regular stretching is that it keeps your muscles strong, lean, healthy, and flexible, thus improving the range of motion of your joints. If you avoid stretching, your muscles tend to stiffen and shorten, and when it comes to performing a more intensive physical activity than you usually do, your muscles are not able to extend as much as they should. That is why you should pay more attention to the state of your muscles and joints and keep them toned (10).
Why does stretching feel good?
Stretching after sleep is a natural and usually unconscious process, which can also be noticed in the behavior of different animals. It is easily explained by science. The process of stretching after sleep is called pandiculation and its purpose is basically to awaken your muscles (7). But that is not the only reason why people stretch and doesn’t explain why stretching feels so good. The answer to the question “why does stretching feel?” good lies in the factors that spur this feeling. These factors include:
Release of endorphins
Like many other types of physical activity, stretching stimulates the release of endorphins – chemicals that are somewhat similar to morphine and cause the feeling of happiness, and euphoria. They also act as analgesics and can reduce the perception of pain, which is highly important when you suffer from a certain injury (4).
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Feeling of relaxation
Studies show that static stretching activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is mainly responsible for relaxation, rest, and digestion. When you stretch, the nerves in your muscles send the signals to your brain, stimulating the previously mentioned parasympathetic system and causing a pleasant feeling of relaxation (1, 6).
Reduced level of stress
Stretching is not only good for your body, but also highly beneficial for your mind. When you stretch, you relax and concentrate on the process, your technique, breathing, and sensations. It calms you down and clears your mind of the unnecessary worrying and irritation, reducing stress and promoting a mental balance. That is also one of the reasons why a lot of yoga practices involve stretching as a part of meditation.
Improved blood circulation
Another study showed that stretching not only stimulates the parasympathetic response after the exercise, but also instantly increases heart rate during the performance of a stretch (2), thus improving circulation in your muscles, providing them with blood, nutrients, and proteins, and boosting your overall wellness. It can also help your body clear itself off the toxins and waste. When you’re asleep, waste products accumulate in the muscles. And when you stretch, you compress the veins, thus increasing blood pressure and removing those toxic build-ups from your lean tissues.
Reduced muscle tension
Your muscles work by contracting, and when they remain in a certain position for a long period of time, chronic contraction occurs. It may cause tension, stiffness, and tightness, later resulting in pain or even injuries. When you stretch, you do the opposite of contraction and thus reduce that tension (8) and alleviate the pain. And as a bonus it always feels absolutely fantastic.
Mistakes to avoid during stretching
Although stretching can make you feel refreshed and relaxed and improve your muscle and joint health, it is important to follow the rules and perform all the exercises properly. A negligent approach and lack of patience can lead to certain negative consequences, such as weakened and loose muscles, increased tightness, or even muscle tears. That is why you should avoid making the following mistakes while stretching (9):
Stretching is a type of physical activity, same as yoga, weightlifting, HIIT, and others. And just like all those workouts, it affects your muscles. That is why, the same way as you don’t lift a dumbbell with only your right hand, or do a lunge only one way, you should involve both sides and parts of your body equally during a stretch. If you feel the pain in your right thigh, it doesn’t mean that you should stretch only your right side. Even if it causes no problems and functions properly, you still must stretch your left thigh the same way.
Overdoing a stretch
Everything is good in moderation. And overdoing anything has never brought any positive results. It applies to stretching as well. Overdoing a stretch may lead to serious negative consequences. If you overstretch, your muscles can become too weak and loose, eventually causing microscopic or even full tears of muscles, ligaments, or tendons (5).
Even if you are a bit crunches for time and want to get down to your workout as quickly as possible, you should never skip or rush your pre-workout stretching. Take your time to stretch well, and if you are that restricted by time limits, it is better to reduce the number of performed exercises during your training, instead of rushing through your warm-up.
Two previous points mentioned overstretching and rushing, but one more mistake that goes with those two together is rapid movements. The main rule of stretching states that you should never stretch to the point when you feel pain or discomfort. And rapid movements can be the reason for both those aspects. If you twitch or bounce in a stretch, you may injure your muscles and add to muscle stiffness. That is why your moves should be smooth and careful.
Performing a proper full-body stretching routine is a great idea, but it takes a lot of time, so turning it into a separate workout might be a good idea. When you are stretching before exercising, make sure that you focus on the muscles that you involve the most during your training. For example, if you are planning to go for a run, you should target your feet, calves, hamstrings, glutes, quads, and hip flexors, while a warm-up before the swimming session should incorporate all major muscle groups, from arms and shoulders to calves and hamstrings.
Any properly performed physical activity in moderation is beneficial for your body and health. And stretching is not an exception. On the contrary, it may offer you even more benefits than some other type of workout. It is widely used to improve flexibility and support proper functioning of the body, its muscles, and joints. It can help you prevent injuries, boost the recovery, and strengthen your muscles. But its numerous benefits and functions don’t explain – why does stretching feel good?
The answer to this question lies in certain reactions of your body to this process, such as activation of the parasympathetic system, which among others is responsible for the relaxation; production of endorphins which cause happiness; better blood circulation, and others. That is why after a good stretch you feel refreshed and satisfied. But bear in mind that improper stretching technique can cause negative consequences and before adjusting your workout routine, please, discuss it with your doctor.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Acute Changes in Autonomic Nerve Activity during Passive Static Stretching (2014, researchgate.net)
- Acute Effects of Stretching Exercise on the Heart Rate Variability in Subjects With Low Flexibility Levels (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Exercise and Depression (2020, webmd.com)
- ls It Possible to Overstretch? (n.d., webmd.com)
- Muscle sympathetic nerve activity responses to dynamic passive muscle stretch in humans (2006, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Pandiculation: Nature’s Way of Maintaining the Functional Integrity of the Myofascial System? (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stretching and flexibility (2019, mayoclinic.org)
- Stretching: Focus on flexibility (2020, mayoclinic.org)
- The importance of stretching (2019, health.harvard.edu)