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There is something magnificent about stretching.  There are few things as satisfying as the morning stretch before you get out of bed to start your day.  It seems to be the extra boost your body needs to complete the transition from being a groggy sloth to an alert and functioning human being. 

Stretching is a natural and healthy way for your body to stay flexible and move with ease.  Not only that, but stretching just feels fantastic. 

Stretching is one of the most important activities you do. Your body need to stretch for many reasons, including:

To stay flexible and maximize the range of motion in your joints.

To stay healthy and encourage blood flow.                                             

To stay balanced and reduce the risk of injury.

To stay pain free.

While the act of stretching will improve your overall health, there is little education given on how to do it.  In truth, effective stretching is not as intuitive as you may think.  

There are 4 principles you can learn to reap the health benefits of stretching. Physical therapists have been applying these principles for decades when prescribing stretching programs for patients.  

Are you ready to learn how to stretch?  Here goes.

1. Form is Everything

The first and most important key to effective stretching is to stretch the correct muscle or muscle group.  

To do this, you must use the proper form.  Knowing which form is the best so you target the right muscle groups is challenging. 

The best way to ensure good form is to study anatomy and understand which joints each muscle crosses and how to move those joints to maximize a stretch. Luckily, that is what physical therapists do. A physical therapist can help guide you to perfect your form.  

2. Force

The second key to effective stretching is to understand how much force should be applied. Often people use too much force and suffer through the stretch.  This can increase pain and end up backfiring. 

When a stretch is painful the muscle reacts by contracting instead of stretching.  This is the opposite of what you want to happen. The muscle has to relax in order to stretch.  

While stretching, you should experience minimal to moderate discomfort, not pain.  If the stretch becomes painful, you need to reduce the force to avoid the muscle contracting.  

You should always be able to smile during a stretch.  A grimace is a sure sign that you are pushing the limits of the muscles.  Ultimately, you will not benefit.

3. Time

The third key to effective stretching is to realize that stretching muscles takes time.  The quick 5 second neck stretch you perform while waiting on the fax to go through is not sufficient to gain most of the health benefits of stretching.  

Research shows that 30-60 second stretches at a minimal to moderate intensity (force) are optimal for lasting changes in the muscles to occur.  

4. Repetitions

The last key for effective stretching is knowing how many times you should perform the stretch to maximize the benefits.

While research varies on the proper amount of repetitions needed for lasting change, studies have indicated that 3 repetitions of 60 second stretches per muscle group every day are best. 

While it may be tough to know exactly how many repetitions you will need to perform on your own, consulting with a licensed physical therapist can take the guesswork out of it.  Once he or she understands your needs an appropriate program will be provided for you.

Conclusion

Applying these four basic principles to your own stretching routine can, over time, provide you greater flexibility, less pain and increased mobility.

If you are unsure where you should stretch to improve your health or even how to get started, seek the expertise of your physical therapist today. He or she can help you avoid injury and stay healthy with an appropriate home program.