Bend over and touch your toes. If that’s a bit of trouble then you should really pay attention to the rest of this article!

Stretching has fallen out of favor to a certain extent with the general public and it’s easy to see why: it’s been shown not to prevent injury when performed before a workout, needs to be done in earnest to reap the benefits, and it seems that the average person is unaware of where they’re tight so as to stretch the muscles that need it the most…basically be efficient with their stretching.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to stretching but rather a glimpse into why flexibility and mobility are important and where to spend most of your time focusing your efforts.

Terms Defined

So when talking about stretching it’s important to understand why we stretch: to either improve flexibility or improve mobility. They’re not the same thing:

  • Flexibility: How easily a muscle lengthens between its attachment points. Can you put your leg over your head with a locked knee? Your hamstrings are considered very flexible.
  • Mobility: How easily the body moves around each joint. Can you grab the ends of a broom handle and, without unlocking your elbows, take it from the front of your body, over your head, and around to the back of your body by just rotating your shoulders? Your shoulders would be considered very mobile.

These are important points to be made distinct, as flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean good mobility as our joints are surrounded by multiple muscles that have to work with one another to allow proper mobility. So if you have flexible hamstrings from tight hip flexors, your hip mobility will not be as great as it could be. And when it comes to posture and a properly functioning body, both are necessary.

Phasic And Tonic Muscles

Many years ago, Doctor Vladimir Janda, a Czechoslovakian neurologist and exercise physiologist, examined the muscles necessary for good posture. To simplify, Janda separated muscles into two groups: Tonic, which tend to shorten when we get tired (or old!) and Phasic, which tend to weaken under stress (or age, I dare say). A simple chart:

Muscles That Get Tighter
(Tonic)
Muscles That Get Weaker
(Phasic)
Upper Trapezius Rhomboids
Pectoralis Major (Chest) Mid-back
Biceps Triceps
Pectoralis Minor (deep chest muscle) Gluteus Maximus
Psoas (Those hip flexors that *everyone* has trouble with) Deep Abs
Piriformis External Obliques
Hamstrings Deltoids
Calf Muscles

That’s the theory, but the terms tonic and phasic have been abandoned by progressive exercise scientists because these terms are too simplistic in describing the behavior of muscles across the body. Not everyone is the same. However, take a look again at the muscles in the tonic group. If you’re sitting at a computer reading this, every single one is contracted. If you stand up and contract all of those muscles, you look like a 90 year old person with terrible posture. If you think of how many people have desk jobs that require large amounts of sitting, the fact that people don’t look old sooner in their life should come as a surprise!

Target: Strengthen the Phasic, Stretch the Tonic

So if you’re going to have rhyme and reason for stretching, the above should be your starting point. If you are not keen on stretching every muscle in your body, focusing on the muscles that make us look old and stretching them regularly would be a vast improvement over no stretching at all. Plan it into your exercise routine and start reaping the benefits today.