To stretch or not to stretch? The question comes up so often, and the answer varies just as often. It can be hard to know what is best for your muscles. We’ve got you covered. Read on for the 411 on the when, why and how of stretching.

When to do it
The when of stretching is probably where most of the confusion arises. Here’s the final answer: it is important to stretch, but only after you have given your muscles a chance to warm up. Vigorously stretching cold muscles may increase the risk of injury because the muscles are tight and less pliable. Get started with five or so minutes of low key cardio before moving into gentle stretches. Include your whole body and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. This short investment can help you perform better as you move into your regular exercise routine.

You must also save time to stretch after exercise. Doing so will reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. You will also speed recovery and even boost well-being. Notice what is happening in your body and focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body as you stretch. Slowing down and tuning into yourself in this way eases stress.

StretchingHow often
Stretch as often as you work out. Unless you are an elite athlete, 30 seconds for each muscle group after a five-minute warm-up is enough. When your workout is done commit to an additional 30 to 60 seconds for your cool down stretch. Remember, gentle stretching helps muscles perform better during exercise. Stretching after exercise helps you release lactic acid, which causes muscle soreness. An easier recovery means you are more likely to keep your commitment to exercise.

As you stretch use proper form and forget the “no pain, no gain”, mantra. Stretching should not hurt. If you begin to experience discomfort, release or adjust your position.

What types of stretches are most important?
At a minimum, you’ll want to do some static stretching after exercise. Cover all major muscle groups with balanced attention – stretch the left as well as the right.

Before exercise, you’ll want to do some dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching engages the same muscle groups you intend to use during a specific fitness activity. Perform this type of stretching at a gentle pace until muscles are warm. For example, soccer players might do some slow side to side lunges as a dynamic stretching activity. Arm circles may help tennis players, and high kicks may help soccer players.

Stretching is a critical part of any fitness routine. It helps you improve flexibility, which may reduce the likelihood of injury. It also improves the range of motion, which in turn improves performance. Finally, stretching can also foster a mind-body connection that boosts well-being and reduces stress.