Your muscles need three different types of training to stay healthy: flexibility, strength and endurance.
The first is flexibility, or how much a muscle can stretch. When muscles are not flexible and relaxed, which will happen when you don’t use them or when you’re injured, they become tight. If we let the muscles stay tight, that’s when we will develop those “knots” everyone has sometimes, which is just a muscle spasm.
The best way to stretch is to slowly bend a part of your body, whether your waist, your neck, your ankle, and you can do this just by moving your muscles in that direction. Sometimes you can help stretch an area using your hands, a piece of furniture, or some other type of device to assist you, like a resistance band.
If you’re feeling an area stretch, you will feel a pulling sensation, but it won’t be painful. If you’ve gotten to the point where you are getting some sharp pain, you are likely overstretching a muscle, and that can risk injuring it.
For healthy muscles, you can probably stretch them pretty far before it starts to get painful, but for an injured muscle it may only be a small amount of stretching before it gets to that point. The important thing to remember is that your goal is simply to try to stretch it out comfortably, no matter how far you are able to do it right now.
The more you stretch a muscle now, the more you will be able to stretch it every time you do it if you keep up with it. It is completely safe to stretch muscles many times per day, as long as it isn’t giving you pain at the time or later on.
Strength and endurance
After making sure your muscles are flexible, then we can start building strength, which is where you use heavier weight or resistance to actually try to build more muscle cells over time. Strength training will involve lower repetitions, and you want to make sure to give your body time to rest to actually build that muscle.
A simple rule is to give muscles a day off between each time you do some strength training. Then, to build endurance for your muscles, use lighter weights than for strength training and do more repetitions to train your muscles to be able to stretch and use your strength for longer periods of time. Your muscles also can gain endurance from longer exercises such as running, swimming or biking.
Injuries happen when people either use their muscles too much, too hard, or not enough, leading to the muscles being overstretched (a strain) or possibly even torn. Using muscles too often will make them tired, and the risk of overloading the muscles will increase.
You can also overuse a muscle in a single episode, such as lifting much more than your muscles can handle, and this can result in an injury too. When something happens suddenly and your muscles need to respond, this can lead to injury because of them being overstretched without expecting it.
In that case, your muscles weren’t prepared for that stress to happen, like if you catch a heavy object falling unexpectedly. On the other hand, if we don’t use our muscles enough, then they become tight and they aren’t ready to do what we need them to do when we need them to do it. All of this means that we all benefit from regular exercise, and a simple thing everyone can do is to stretch a few times a day.
If you work in a job where you are doing heavy lifting all day long, a healthy stretching regimen will make your muscles prepared to handle load after load. If you’re working in an office, getting up and stretching is an easy way to keep your muscles flexible and to avoid developing unhealthy posture that can be very hard to correct later.
If your job isn’t encouraging you to take these kind of breaks, you should talk to your supervisor and let them know that people will perform better and be less likely to be injured with some short exercise breaks.
There are great resources online, including videos, to show you short exercise and stretching routines that can be done in just a few minutes. You can also get some training from a personal trainer, physical therapist, or other health professional.
Once you get into stretching regularly it will be easier to maintain, like any other habit. And your body will thank you for it later.
Dr. Zeke McKinney grew up and lives in Minneapolis. He practices clinical occupational and environmental medicine (OEM) in St. Louis Park, MN, and he is one of few clinicians in Minnesota who evaluates work and community-related environmental toxicologic exposures. He is also a researcher for the HealthPartners Institute, including on a COVID-19 vaccine trial, and in helping to set up a barbershop vaccine clinic in North Minneapolis. He focuses on health equity and environmental justice for all communities.