Firstly, some things to remember when training flexibility:
- Staying consistent is key.
- It takes a long time to see progress, be patient.
- Listen to your body, don’t push yourself too much or you will end up with an injury.
- Don’t set yourself strict goals, because this will cause you to push yourself too much.
- You should deal with issues caused by your everyday activities that could be causing your progress to slow or stop.
How often should I stretch and for how long?
In this video she summarises a meta-analysis, concluding that five minutes of stretching per muscle group per week is the minimum you should do to see progress, and that after ten minutes of stretch a week (per muscle group) your progress plateaus. She also concludes that you don’t see a big difference in increased flexibility between stretching six and seven days a week. So we should aim to stretch for at least five days a week, with one minute per muscle group per day.
Another study concluded that there was no difference between holding stretches for 30 seconds or for 60 seconds, or between stretching once per day or three times per day. This suggests that one 30-second stretch per day resulted in the same increase in flexibility as did three 30-second or three 60-second stretches per day. To me, these results seem quite contradictory to those of the meta-analysis because you can only fit in seven 30-second stretches a week and that’s only 3.5 minutes per muscle group, not 5 minutes (the minimum amount concluded from the meta-analysis). This article from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, however, suggests repeating stretches two to four times, citing a study that showed that stretching stopped making so much difference after four repetitions. (One difference between these studies was that the former studied only the muscle and the latter studied muscle and tendons, this could mean that repetitions are helpful when it comes to tendons, but not muscles.)
So from this information I would suggest stretching each muscle group twice a day for 30 seconds, five to six times a week. You could do these repetitions in the same stretch sessions, or split your stretch session into two separate sessions, perhaps one in the morning and one in the evening.
When I stretch, I don’t start timing that 30 seconds until I’m at my comfortable limit in the stretch. When I plan a stretch routine for classes I plan 15 seconds just for students to get themselves into the position. So we spend about 45 seconds on each stretch. I have just started using repetitions in class stretching – I’m interested to see if it will make any difference. I’ll definitely come back to edit this post with any observations I make.
Now we have an idea about how often we need to stretch per muscle group per day and week…
How many muscle groups do we need to stretch?
Now to find the answer to this you need to know your goals. Back, hips, shoulders? Splits? Pancake? A specific pole move? Or maybe everything and anything… If your main goal is to perfect a certain pole move then you need to assess what is being stretched during this move. For example, with the Ballerina move, there is a lot being stretched: hips, hamstrings, quads, back (upper and lower), shoulders and chest. So if a beautiful Ballerina is your goal you’ve got a lot of muscle groups to stretch, but if you’re only interested in getting your front splits then the main muscle groups you need to work on are, hamstrings, hips and quads.
I consider the stretching we do at the end of classes to be very well rounded. We stretch hips (front and middle), hamstrings, quads, upper back, shoulders, wrists, chest, glutes, lower back (forward bend) and neck. This all takes about 25 minutes. Wrist and neck stretches are maintenance stretches that we do to counter any tightness that we cause during the class, if you are stretching at home after a warm up that wasn’t on the pole then you could substitute these stretches for back bends that concentrate on the lower back. (We don’t do these in class at the moment because of my pregnancy.)
So 25 minutes (+ 5 mins warm up) is about how long it takes for a well rounded stretch session, but if you don’t want to stretch all of these muscles groups, the time you need per stretch session will be much less.
If you can’t find the 30 minutes a day 5 times a week necessary for a well rounded stretch, choose a smaller number of muscle groups and concentrate on them. Being consistent with a smaller number of muscle groups rather than splitting all the muscle groups across two or three days will mean you will see progress faster. You will progress, of course, even if you split all the muscle groups across a few days but it will take longer for you to see and this could cause you to become discouraged and give up.
Here are two examples of a schedule you could use if you only have 15 minutes available a day. Both these examples use two repetitions of each stretch in the same session. If you have less than 15 minutes a day, you could also save time with bilateral stretches (stretching both sides at once) instead, but I prefer to stretch unilaterally so that I can stretch fully on each side.
In the end, it’s likely that stretching any amount more than you normally do is going to benefit you.
Don’t get too caught up in planning or a schedule, it helps to be consistent but if you find yourself procrastinating because you can’t figure out the best schedule for you then you will end up wasting time you could have spent stretching.