Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific skeletal muscle (or muscle group) is deliberately stretched, often by abduction from the torso, in order to improve the muscle's felt elasticity and reaffirm comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion. Stretching is also used therapeutically to alleviate cramps.
In its most basic form, stretching is a natural and instinctive activity; it is performed by humans and many animals. It can be accompanied by yawning. Stretching often occurs instinctively after waking from sleep, after long periods of inactivity, or after exiting confined spaces and areas.
Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic tenets of physical fitness. It is common for athletes to stretch before and after exercise in order to reduce injury and increase performance. Yoga involves the stretching of major muscle groups, some of which require a high level of flexibility to perform, for example the lotus position. Stretching can strengthen muscles, and in turn strong muscles are important to stretching safely and effectively.
Stretching can be dangerous when performed incorrectly. There are many techniques for stretching in general, but depending on which muscle group is being stretched, some techniques may be ineffective or detrimental, even to the point of causing permanent damage to the tendons, ligaments and muscle fiber. The physiological nature of stretching and theories about the effect of various techniques are therefore subject to heavy inquiry.
A roller derby athlete stretching.
One review suggests that there are many beneficial stretches that can improve range of motion (ROM) in athletes, especially runners. Another study found that classic "static stretching" did not prevent injuries for runners.
Also, certain stretching techniques and protocols prevent injuries when performed (within 15 minutes) prior to exercise.
However, stretching does not prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, neither when performed before nor after exercise, according to a Cochrane review in 2006.
It is also suggested that one stretching exercise may not be enough to prevent all types of injury, and therefore, multiple stretching exercises should be used to gain the full effects of stretching.