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How Long Do I Need to Hold This Stupid Stretch?

I’m mostly asking for my hamstrings, which are about to snap

I was so excited for the first day of my martial arts class at the YWCA of Redford, Michigan. There I was, lined up in columns with at least two dozen other kids, and all of us were prepared to finally learn the skills that would prepare us to defeat our mortal foes with spinning thrust kicks like Tommy Lee from the film Best of the Best

Eventually, our taekwondo instructor entered the room, and the violence to our bodies commenced… in the form of a whole bunch of uncomfortable stretching. Granted, I’m sure it was less of an eternity than it seemed to my nine-year-old brain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we spent a full half of our one-hour training session stretching our way through various positions. I don’t know that I’d ever done any dedicated stretching in my life before that moment, and it was an absolutely agonizing ordeal. In total, we held each stretch for a full five minutes. 

I didn’t learn a thing about self-defense during that entire multi-month class, but I did learn that I vehemently abhorred stretching, a resentment that’s lingered ever since. Or at least it did until the first time I followed the instructions of Diamond Dallas Page’s “Yoga for Regular Guys” workout. It seemed like no pose was held for longer than 15 seconds at a time — or one minute in total — yet by strategically breathing in as key muscles were flexed, my body appeared to immediately adapt to the stretching and elongated my muscles with minimal pain. Compared to white-belt-level taekwondo training, it was a downright pleasant experience.

So what gives? Was there some necessity or hidden benefit to stretching a limb for several minutes at a time? Was my taekwondo instructor a grifter who was trying to run out the clock and get paid while he intimidated us all into stretching in silence alongside him? (All signs point to yes.)

How long should a stretching session take?

If you ask the respected arbiters of health and fitness science, you won’t necessarily find that a consensus has been reached in this area, but you should be able to extrapolate a general range of acceptable stretch-holding lengths.

An expert panel from the American College of Sports Medicine evaluated several studies on stretching and concluded that spending 60 total seconds locked in each static stretching position is optimal. Moreover, they expressed that this time could be divided amongst three to four rounds of stretching — i.e., if you can hold a stretch for 20 seconds at a time, three times is adequate. Likewise, if 15 seconds is the longest you can maintain a stretch, four rounds should be sufficient. 

On the other hand, the experts from the National Academy of Sports Medicine have stated that all of the benefits of stretching are achieved within 30 seconds unless you’re over the age of 65, in which case the total time allocated per stretch should be a full 60 seconds. 

In short, 30 seconds of total stretching is probably the bare-minimum benchmark to strive for in order to ensure that you’ve accomplished something of value, while one full minute of stretching per individual stretch position appears to be the simplest way to guarantee that your investment will yield beneficial results.

That’s helpful. Is there anything else I should consider when stretching?

Absolutely. One point that the experts appear to have reached a definite consensus on is the timing of your static stretching. Engaging in cold-muscle stretching prior to a workout is detrimental for two major reasons: First, stretching weakens your muscles and shifts them beyond their ordinary positions of rigidity and stability without your brain having caught up to those newly extended limits. Second, cold-muscle stretching is far more likely to result in an injury; your muscles are altogether more pliable once they’ve been warmed up. This means that your muscles are likely to stretch naturally as you train — also referred to as “dynamic stretching” — as long as they’re frequently moved throughout a full range of motion.

All of which is to say, stretching doesn’t have to be the tortuous, half-hour ordeal that my taekwondo instructor took great pains to transform it into. Instead, it can be a brief, muscle-recovery routine that you engage in at the conclusion of every training session. Please keep this in mind the next time you pay for instruction from a personal trainer or a coach of any kind, and they have you on the floor appearing every bit as silly as Jean-Claude Van Damme made Conan O’Brien look on O’Brien late-night talk show. 

Because all that’s stretching is the truth.