First, the good news. Stretching increases your flexibility, helps you maintain a healthy range of motion, and prevents joint and muscle injury. So how can something like this be a bad thing?
Stretching too often or exceeding your natural limits can result in overstretched muscles and injury. In extreme cases, a person can develop joint hypermobility, a condition when ligaments and tendons become loose and lose their ability to stabilize the joints.
Finding a balance between stretching and strengthening is key. Having the proper amount of muscular strength, as well as staying within your range of motion, can prevent injuries and make sure you are getting the most benefits of your stretch.
Stretching Too Often
In 2009, a group of researchers examined the effects of frequency of static stretching on flexibility and hamstring tightness. 31 subjects that exhibited hamstring tightness were divided into 3 groups: (Group 1) stretching once a week, (Group 2) stretching three times a week, and (Group 3) stretching 5 times a week.
The results? The subjects in Group 2 showed a greater increase in flexibilty than those in Group 1, while there were no appreciable differences in Group 2 and Group 3. In short, stretching once a week will show a modest improvement in flexibility, but increasing the frequency to 3 to 5 days a week is better…and still safe!
Stretching too often is not dangerous on its own, but when paired with high intensity. That means that a light stretch every day isn’t dangerous, while frequently going beyond your range of motion can cause what’s often referred to as overstretching.
Overstretching occurs when you stretch your muscles over their limit, in terms of flexibility and range of motion. If muscles are overstretched, they lose their tone, leading to tears in some tissues or whole muscles. Tendons and ligaments can also be damaged when stretched beyond their limit. This is especially common in long, static holds.
When you lengthen the muscle, you are also stretching the connective tissues that surround it, known as fascia. If stretching too much, these tissues lose their normal elasticity.
Fascia also contains elastin molecules and collagen that cushion and protect the muscle cells. If stretched frequently, it loses its function, making muscles more vulnerable and potentially causing micro-tears not only to muscles but also ligaments and tendons.
If you’re not sure you’re overstretched, these are some common warning signs:
Continuous soreness of the muscle
Limited range of motion
Swelling and bruising
Stiffness of the muscle
Pain or tingling
Common joint dislocation
Joints click or crack frequently
It’s important to note that overstretching doesn’t happen often. If you warm up before stretching and take your muscle only to a point of a slight pull without feeling any pain, it means that you are within your normal range of motion. This type of stretching can be done frequently without risk of injury.
Damage To Muscles And Tendons
If you don’t stretch properly, it could lead to injury to muscles and tendons.
The first possible thing that can happen is a pulled muscle. Not every muscle pull is the same, the symptoms range from mild to severe.
Muscle strains are generally categorized as:
Grade I – Only a few muscle fibers are torn or overstretched. The muscle is tender, sore and slightly inflamed, but there is no loss of strength.
Grade II – A greater number of muscle fibers are affected. The swelling, tenderness, and pain are more severe. Some bruising might appear and a loss of strength is highly likely.
Grade III – The whole muscle rips in two and/or shears away from the tendon. This damage is most severe and easiest to notice. There is often a popping sensation and sound at the moment of the injury, as well as severe swelling, discoloration and pain. The muscle completely loses its function. There might be an obvious dent under the skin where the muscle is injured.
The Grade I strain can be treated at home and usually doesn’t require a visit to the doctor. You need to rest and ice the area, and it should heal within a couple of days. If the pain persists for more than two days, or if you had a Grade II or Grade III tear, you will need to visit a doctor. Most severe tears will require immediate medical attention.
When a muscle has reached its maximum length, further stretching puts unnecessary stress to tendons. Tendons are the second most common thing to be injured during stretching
Except for overstretching, damage to tendons is generally a result of tendon – muscle imbalance. This imbalance can happen when a muscle becomes stronger in a short amount of time, or as a result of frequent plyometrics. Why? If a muscle is strong, when it contracts – the relatively weak tendon might strain too much. This can cause micro-injuries and tears. If that happens and isn’t diagnosed and treated, it can also lead to a serious condition, called tendinopathy.
The tendon-muscle imbalance can be tackled with heavy resistance training. Tendons react to this type of training and can become stronger and stiffer, which in turn allows them to support the muscle.
If the tendon is overstretched, it can weaken the joint’s integrity and cause destabilization or hypermobility.
The Dangers Of Hypermobility
Joint hypermobility means that you’re too flexible and that one or more joints have an exceptionally large range of motion. Although this condition is often hereditary or a result of other underlying condition, it can also be caused by overstretching. That’s quite common in gymnasts and yogis.
Like with muscles, joint hypermobility happens when you are frequently stretching over the normal range of motion.
We mentioned that when a muscle has reached its maximum length, further stretching can cause damage to tendons and ligaments. Ligaments which are too elastic or weak are not able to hold your joints together which can lead to joint instability.
Another frequent issue is that people already have hypermobile joints but aren’t aware of it. The condition isn’t that easy to diagnose, and they might frequently overstretch without knowing it.
Hypermobile people are constantly moving above their range of motion, in turn relying more on their connective tissues than muscles. With time, this can overstretch the connective tissues and deactivate the nearby muscles, in turn causing pain, instability and injury.
If you doubt you have joint hypermobility from childhood or as a result of stretching, the best thing to do is to see a professional.
However, you can also check if you:
Can move the thumb and wrist down, so the thumb reaches the forearm
Can extend the little fingers back beyond 90°
Have abnormally bent knees when standing (the knees are going backward, creating an arch in your legs)
You can bend your arms further than normal when fully extended (creating a similar arch as the knees)
Your shoulder can fully rotate backwards
If you do have hypermobile joints, you should work more on building your muscle to learn to activate it properly, rather than continue to overstretch. This will help you build a balance of strength and flexibility.
Dangers of Strength and Flexibility Imbalance
People who are building strength often lack flexibility and vice versa. There is a misconception that you can’t or shouldn’t work on developing both. However, stretching and strengthening exercises can actually enhance each other and prevent injury.
There are two common scenarios of strength and flexibility imbalance.
You’re mainly doing strength training, like weightlifting. In this case, performing static stretches after doing the exercise can help to decrease soreness, increase flexibility but also promote muscle growth.
After fatiguing your muscles, these muscles are slightly shortened. That is commonly a result of working out the muscle intensively through only a part of its range of motion. Stretching muscle immediately after strengthening allows it to safely return to its full range of motion. It also prevents the muscle tissues to heal at a shorter length which would otherwise stun muscle growth and decrease flexibility.
You are hypermobile or often stretch, but you don’t perform enough strengthening exercises on the same muscles. In this case, the connective tissues elongate and loosen. They are weaker than the muscle and this makes them more susceptible to damage. Injury can happen with sudden movement of the attached muscle (e.g. plyometrics) or overstretching. Strength training can help to stabilize joints and to make tendons stiffer and stronger.
In both scenarios, accompanying stretching with strength training through your full range of motion seems to be the appropriate solution. The added weight and going to the furthest lengths and depths you feel comfortable in can increase your stretching tolerance, and combat the strength and flexibility imbalance.
Work on strength and flexibility, and you will be able to stretch more often, whilst maintaining joint stability and the health of your connective tissues.
How To Avoid Injury When Stretching?
If you love stretching and want to increase your flexibility, you can do it often – but in a right way. Stretching incorrectly can cause injury – and lead to the exact opposite of what you want to achieve – inflexibility.
Except for ensuring your flexibility is balanced with strength, here are five more things you can do to get the most out of your stretch:
Warm Up – The most common mistake people do is stretching a cold muscle. This alone can cause a tear, even without overstretching. Make sure you do an active warm up, like light cardio, for at least 10 minutes before stretching. Also, make sure you’re warming up all the muscles you are planning to stretch.
Focus On Proper Alignment – Rather than forcing yourself into the deepest version of the stretch, make sure you maintain proper form. A tell-tale sign of a wrong alignment is not feeling the stretch where you should feel it (e.g. feeling your back do most of the work in a hamstring stretch).
Don’t Bounce – Bouncing in static stretches is something we can see gymnasts and other athletes do when they need to reach a higher level of flexibility. However, this type of training can damage both the tendon and the muscle, so it’s best to avoid it.
Don’t Go Over Your Edge – Pushing the stretch beyond your limits can tear the muscle. It’s normal to feel a slight pull, but avoid going over the point of pain. Many people go over the point of pain to quickly gain flexibility. However, stretching more often but within your range of motion is safer and more effective in the long run.
Should you stretch every day?
American College of Sports Medicine instructs healthy adults to stretch all major muscle groups at least two or three times per week. This includes the neck, shoulders, chest, back, hips, legs and ankles.
Taking that into account, the best answer to this question is: you can, but don’t have to stretch every day.
If you do stretch every day, it should be just a couple of gentle stretches. An intense flexibility routine, on the other hand, should not be done daily. For example, if you are working on an hour long routine including deep stretches for the whole body, it’s enough to do it for only two or three times per week.
How Long To Hold A Stretch?
The general rule is that you should focus around 60 seconds on each stretch. You can break that up in 15 second intervals and repeat the stretch three more times. Then move to the next exercise and/or body part.
If your main goal is to increase flexibility, 30 second intervals are better. They are continuously shown to deliver maximum results, and are considered superior to 15 second intervals for the purpose of greater flexibility.
Stretching is important for anyone who wants to maintain a healthy range of motion in their muscles and joints. However, if the muscles are forced beyond their normal capacity, it could lead to overstretching and injury. There are many ways you can often stretch, without a risk of injury. This includes balancing your strength and flexibility and becoming more aware of your body and its limits.
Braz J Med Biol Res: Effect of Frequency of Static Stretching on Flexibility, Hamstring Tightness and Electromyographic Activity
Versus Arthritis: What Is Joint Hypermobility?
ACSM: Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults