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You’re Probably Stretching All Wrong and Screwing Over Your Future Self

Even as I carry serious back pain into my 30s, I find regular stretching sucks. Can I avoid it much longer?

Robert Herbst has stretched every morning of his life for the last 40 years. Despite having chronic back pain from scoliosis, Herbst, now 60, became a world-champion powerlifter — and attributes his success to a strict stretching routine.

Nowadays, Herbst still hasn’t let his back get the best of him. He stretches his lower back, hamstrings and shoulders “for 10 to 15 minutes first thing every morning.” It helps him maintain his flexibility, he says, and get prepared and centered for the day ahead.

“I joke that on my last day in the nursing home I will stretch and then die, but at least [I’ll] have gotten my stretching in,” he says.

For Herbst, daily stretching is a battle against aging. “I am sure daily stretching has helped me keep flexibility, strength and range of motion in the face of the wear and tear from all my heavy lifting and the demands of Father Time,” he says.

I wish I had Herbst’s self-discipline. Even as I carry serious back pain into my 30s, I find that regular stretching — to put it delicately — bores me, feels bad and generally sucks shit. Can I avoid it much longer? Do I have to stretch every morning for the rest of my dumb life?

I talked to two physical therapists: John Baio and Jason Priest.

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Age Is Just a Number

Baio, a physical therapist and owner of the Martino Physical Therapy clinic in New York, says age isn’t the only factor when it comes to how much certain individuals should stretch. Though it is equally important at any age, he says, “the frequency, duration and intensity of stretching depends on the individual’s mobility requirements.”

Those requirements? One, how sedentary your lifestyle is; two, if you have a nagging injury; and three, your personality.

“I would also consider two personality traits of the patient: motivation and apprehension,” he says. “If a patient is not eager to participate in stretching at all, I usually try to give them the most effective stretches for their particular functional deficits while keeping the whole program under three to four minutes. If a patient is apprehensive regarding movement of a previously injured joint or body part, then I would keep the program focused on dynamic stretching and avoid their end ranges of motion at first.”

Basically, if you cringe at the thought of stretching your sore groin muscles, Baio will prescribe a dynamic stretch. Instead of a sitting butterfly stretch, he might have you do lunges, where the groin gets stretched as well as your hamstrings, glutes and others.

“I cannot express enough that age is not even in the top 10 variables to consider when dosing a stretching program,” he adds. “I might prescribe a 10-minute routine for a 60-year-old and a 25-year-old in the same day.”

That said, Jason Priest — a registered nurse, personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist for his company Dad Bod Health — says there is no denying the fact that as men age we become more sedentary, and thus our muscles stiffen up. “We certainly tend to lose some flexibility as we age,” he says, “and people who stretch regularly tend to be more mobile, agile and experience less pain associated with aging and stiff body parts.”

It’s for this reason that Priest says the most important time to start stretching is when you’re young. If not for injury prevention and better range of motion, do it for sake of a routine to adopt as you get older. Much like Herbst, who cemented a now-40-year-old stretching routine in his 20s, Priest says, “As men age it becomes even more important to incorporate a structured stretching routine into their fitness plan.”

“We live in a society in which time is often limited, and in my experience people tend to leave out this crucial step. [They] either don’t realize the value of it or have not had any issues, and therefore are not inclined to incorporate it into their routine.” Jason adds that he has heard several men say they skip stretching because it’s a “waste of time,” or because they don’t see the immediate benefits of it — but that line of thinking is wrong.

“The bottom line is the science is there to prove the benefits,” he tells MEL. “Regardless of how long it increases mobility for afterward, … stretching actually increases blood flow to the muscles and can reduce the risk of injury significantly, especially before and after exercise. Flexibility is extremely important in overall health and well-being and can be a huge asset in your workout routine.”

So How Much Should I Stretch?

Realistically, Priest says a good full-body five-minute stretch should be adequate. “We live in a fast-paced society, and most men have to make the time to work out in order to maintain good health,” he says. “As men age and potentially experience an increased amount of stiffness, or if they have a somewhat sedentary lifestyle, then it would seem logical to increase both time and frequency of stretching.”

The amount you stretch also depends on how sedentary you already are. Both trainers warn that if you’re a desk jockey with limited activity during the week, hitting the gym hard on the weekends is a recipe for disaster. “It is near impossible to have a sedentary job and participate in Crossfit on weekends without a thorough stretching routine,” Baio says.

Priest adds that as we age, withering away at our desks for years with little to no physical activity, we often “try and do too much on the weekend and end up having issues, [because] the ligaments that hold our joints together tend to become stiff [and] osteoarthritis can also cause the cartilage in our joints to wear away.

“This is why stretching becomes even more important as we age to help maintain flexibility and mobility,” he concludes.

What Stretches Are Best?

Baio says the most recent research tends to favor dynamic stretching “over the traditional static stretching we learned in gym class as kids.” That is, for example, stretching your hamstrings by doing slow lunges, rather than a stand-and-bend stretch.

It’s no mistake that “dynamic stretching” sounds very much like regular exercise. “With a perfect record in maintaining flexibility, exercise always wins over other treatments,” Baio says. “if gaining muscle mass is part of an exercise program, then that individual will have better flexibility than a couch potato.”

In other words, stretching or exercising on their own is better than nothing, but exercise in addition to stretching is the winning combination to better health and flexibility. This is why people who do yoga and pilates are so flexible, they’re not just sitting and stretching, but the poses help build muscle mass while they do it.

“To be quite honest, I feel strongly that stretching should be a part of anyone’s life,” Priest says — anyone “who is interested in achieving or maintaining optimal health.”

It’s good to maintain muscle mass, he says, “but one cannot ignore the value of stretching, and he same can be said for cardiovascular exercise.”

Priest says he learned this the hard way when he became a father. “I used to believe [stretching] was a waste of time until I started getting older,” he says. “After my son was born I started having low back pain from carrying him around, so I started taking things more seriously in terms of self-care. I had been in a workout routine for quite some time but often ignored my core exercises as well as my stretching routine. Once the back pain started creeping up on me, I decided to incorporate a consistent core-workout routine and stretching routine.”

Priest says that someone can stretch as much as they want, but if they have weak core muscles, they’re still “at a higher risk for injury than someone who has a strong core and practices proper lifting techniques.”

“I firmly believe that maintaining consistency in all three categories (cardio, resistance training and stretching) is the best recipe for achieving or maintaining optimal health,” Priest adds. Since incorporating a dynamic stretching and core-strengthening routine, he says, he no longer deals with any type of back pain and is “in the best shape of my life at almost 40.”

So get into a stretching routine literally tomorrow morning, and you’ll thank yourself later. If anything, take it from Herbst, the man still powerlifting at 60 years old. Even if you don’t care about getting in shape, he says, at the very least, it’s a great way to find some inner peace.

“Men in their 20s and 30s think they are invincible, but they should know that stretching is also a good way to kill two birds with one stone and use that time to work on mindfulness,” Herbst says. He does a combination of static and dynamic stretches and uses his morning stretch to “get calm and centered so that I can take on the day without being all stressed about what is on my calendar.”