Stretching 101

How to Know Which Muscle You’re Stretching

Muscles are fibrous tissue grouped together in bands or bundles. They make movement and motion possible so that we can move about freely. It’s hard to determine exactly how many muscles a person has, but experts believe it can range from 650 to 850 muscles.

Each muscle has a specific function, but they all fall into one of the three types of muscle:

Cardiac—Muscles in and around the heart are considered cardiac muscles. These muscles have a very important job of helping the heartbeat and pumping blood.

Smooth—These muscles create the walls of blood vessels, intestines and the uterus in women. They are also found in the internal structure of the eyes.

Skeletal—The majority of your muscles fall under this category. Skeletal muscles are attached to the bone—and in some cases the skin—by tendons.

Cardiac and smooth muscles work involuntarily meaning we have no control over their movement. Skeletal muscles, on the other hand, can be manipulated and controlled.

Benefits of Stretching Muscles

Many exercises are aimed at building muscle, but stretching is actually more important. When we talk about stretching muscles, we’re referring to the skeletal muscles throughout the body.

There are many benefits connected to stretching the muscles. Stretching is especially important now that people are sitting more. Sitting for long periods can have a serious impact on posture and flexibility, both of which can be improved with stretch exercises.

Stretching Improves Blood Flow

The team at the University of California, Davis states that one of the primary benefits of stretching is increased blood flow. When more blood is circulated it brings more nutrients to muscles. It’s believed that the increased blood supply also helps combat muscle soreness. That’s why many athletes stretch after exercising or training.

Stretching Keeps Muscles Flexible

If muscles aren’t moved often, they’ll become less flexible. This is turn limits range of motion and the capability of muscles.

Stretching Helps Joints Maintain Full Range of Motion

It’s now known that stretching muscles help maintain good joint health. The primary benefit is helping joints maintain their full range of motion, which can help prevent injuries. Having a full range of motion in the joints also helps muscles work more effectively.

Stretching Alleviates Painful Muscle Cramps

When muscles have been over-exerted or held in the same position for a long period it can cause painful muscle cramps. This is when muscles contract sharply. It’s totally involuntary and can make it impossible to use the affected muscles. Stretching exercises are one of the few ways you can prevent and relieve muscle cramps.

Stretching Eases Muscle Tension

Stretching also helps to relax the muscles. People tend to carry a lot of tension in their muscles when they’re stressed. Subconsciously tightening muscles is a natural defense mechanism that occurs when we experience stress. This can be counteracted by stretching because it relaxes the muscles and helps calm the mind.

Importance of Using Proper Stretching Techniques

Stretching is a low impact physical activity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t injure yourself. Understanding how the muscles work and the proper technique is essential to stretching safely.

It’s important to know which muscles you’re stretching, which is beautifully displayed in illustrations by yoga instructor Vicky Timón. Each image highlights a targeted muscle and a corresponding stretch exercise. When you know exactly where muscles are located you can isolate movement more effectively.

Other tips for proper stretching techniques include:

  • Hold stretches for 15-60 seconds. Repeat the stretch 3-4 times before moving on to another exercise.
  • Stretch tight muscles first. The stretching will help improve movement so the rest of your exercises are easier.
  • Don’t bounce when you stretch. Bouncing can tear muscles and cause scar tissue to form.
  • If you’re injured take it slow and avoid intense stretches that can strain an already compromised muscle.
  • Avoid stretching cold muscles, which can increase the chance of injury. Before stretching go for a 5-minute walk or jog to warm up the muscles.
  • Put emphasis on the major muscle groups: back, legs, hips, shoulders, neck.
  • Breathe normally during stretches.
  • If you feel pain, decrease the degree of movement immediately to avoid muscle injury.

Stretching should be done on a regular basis. Aim to stretch for at least 10 minutes 2-3 days a week so that muscles remain flexible and healthy.