Have you ever watched a gymnast do a perfect split and wished you could be that flexible? Heck, do you wish you could just touch your toes? While some people are lucky enough to be more flexible than others, we were all born with a certain amount of flexibility. Children are inherently more flexible than adults; their muscles still have memory of being in the fetal position for nine months. However, flexibility is certainly something that can be learned and stretching exercises are in fact a critical component of your lifestyle triage. Regular stretching can help you reach your flexibility goals and contribute to good muscle, joint and bone health.
WHY SHOULD YOU STRETCH?
- Helps prevent problems with posture
- Prevents injury to muscles from overextension exercises
- Allows you to be more active later in life
- Gives your muscles a leaner appearance
- Improves bone density and joint health
- Increases your range of motion (i.e. helps you to reach the goal of touching your toes or doing a split)
- Increases flexibility, which prevents muscle soreness, helps with faster recovery after exercise and promotes muscle growth (And, no, this won’t help you gain an extra inch or two in height)
WHEN SHOULD YOU STRETCH?
Contrary to popular belief, stretching exercises should not be done on cold muscles prior to a workout. You are more likely to strain your muscles and cause injury if you do. What you should do prior to a workout is to warm up the muscles and increase your heart rate by spending 5-10 minutes on a cardio machine such as an elliptical trainer, rowing machine, treadmill etc.
If you only have an hour to spare at the gym (not including changing, getting the iPod ready and chatting with your workout buddy), here’s a schedule:
- 5 minutes — warm up on a cardio machine
- 25 minutes — weights (pick target area(s) and concentrate on it — example upper body or lower body, or even more specifically, chest/back, biceps/triceps, shoulders/deltoids, etc.)
- Incorporate stretching into your routine, by stretching the muscles that you’re working on in between sets [Always stretch opposing muscle groups (biceps/triceps, hamstrings/quads, abs/lower back) to prevent imbalance and injury
- 20 minutes — cardio workout
- 10 minutes — abdominal workout and cool down
Stretching after your workout should become as essential to you as breathing. Instead of playing that last set, or running that final sprint if you’re short on time, save those few extra minutes for your stretching exercises.
- Ease into a stretch — it takes 30-60 seconds to fully enter a stretch. Don’t expect to reach your maximum range of motion right away.
- Beginners should hold a stretch for 30 seconds and aim to move up to holding a stretch for as long as 90 seconds.
You know you’re at a maximum stretch point when you feel a pull, but not pain.
- Never stretch to the point of pain — if you do then instead of relaxing and stretching your muscles, you will cause them to contract, which is their natural reflex to protect against injury. This can lead to damage in surrounding tissue and ligaments as well.
- Don’t forget to breathe — breathing increases oxygen to the muscles being stretched helping them to recover faster after strenuous exercise.
- Never bounce — ballistic stretching is best left to the professional athletes who have coaches to instruct them and watch over their form and function.
- Posture — always keep your head and neck in neutral alignment. Keep your abdomen tucked in (belly button to the spine) at all times during your stretch
- If your schedule allows, incorporate up to two hours per week of Yoga or Pilates into your exercise regimen and reap the rewards in all areas of your health both physical and mental.
o Yoga — practiced for thousands of years in India, and fast gaining momentum in the USA and the rest of the world, it is a process of stretching and strengthening both mind and body with special emphasis on breathing. There are various types of yoga from Raja Yoga (yoga of the mind) to ‘Iron Yoga’ (yoga done with weights and dumbbells).
o Pilates — created by Joseph Pilates more than 70 years ago, it is a series of controlled movements performed on specific machines designed to strengthen, stretch and balance the body.
Whatever method of stretching employed, whether it is between-set stretching of the muscles you’re working because of a tight schedule or incorporating a couple hours a week of your favorite stretching exercises, this is a critical component of your exercise regimen, one that shouldn’t be relegated to “if-I-have-time-at-the-end.” By recognizing and acknowledging its importance and incorporating it into your lifestyle, you will be establishing a lifetime of good joint and muscle health.