Yesterday, I blogged about the benefits of exercising for health. I was inspired by Kek's comment to elaborate on the benefits of stretching (thanks Kek!).
Unfortunately, many people overlook the benefits of stretching because it doesn't provide you with any physical benefits. You can stretch as much as you like but it isn't going to have any direct impact on your physical appearance.
So what are the benefits of stretching? Well, as you're probably aware, a major benefit of stretching is enhancing flexibility. The majority of the population is inflexible...chances are that you fall into this category.
By exercising, you are continually contracting muscles in order to generate movement. For example, bicep curls require the contraction of the bicep muscle in order to lift the bar up. Another example could be when you run, the primary muscles involved (hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, tibialis anterior and calves) are all contracting in order for you to perform the running movement. With this continual contraction happening, these muscles will become tighter and tighter. It is therefore very important to establish a stretching routine in order to combat this tightening of muscles.
Okay, I hear you asking..."so what if I have tight muscles?". Well, muscles attach to bones via connective tissues. If your muscles are tight, your muscles will be pulling your bones into an unnatural position. This means having poor posture which can significantly increase the likelihood of injury. Of course, there are many other bad side-effects of poor posture including self-esteem, self-image, confidence, joint degradation, spinal dysfunction and so on.
Tight muscles also restrict your range of motion when exercising. For example, when performing a squat, having a good degree of flexibility will allow you to obtain a good stretch through the quadriceps and glutes. However being tight will inhibit your range and increase the likelihood of injury (often through curviture of the lumbar spine as a result of tight hamstrings).
As I mentioned in the comments in my previous blog post, the three major points of injury (according to a physician at an exercise professionals seminar I assisted in hosting) were the knees, lumbar (lower) spine and shoulders. The most common reason for injury was being inflexible. I cannot count the number of clients that I have trained with at least one of these injuries that could have easily been avoided.
A secondary benefit of stretching is aiding recovery. By stretching following a workout, you do enhance flood flow to those muscles and can thus aid in nutrient transport for cell repair.
Now I know that there are studies out there saying things like "stretching doesn't reduce the risk of pulling a muscle"...and that may be so. But there is plenty of research out there backing up what I have said above!
Here's an interesting point. An increased degree of flexibility can inhibit the muscles ability to generate power. The reason is all to do with the physics of conservation of energy - a tighter muscle will conserve more energy than a more flexible muscle. If you are training for a specific power event, this may be something you may want to discuss with your personal trainer.
Finally, there are a small percentage of people who are "over-flexible" or hyperflexible. Being too flexible can have some serious side effects also, particularly with joint dislocations and joint laxity. This is because the muscles allow for too much stretch and thus an over-extension at a particular joint can occur.