Stretching is one of the easiest, yet most often neglected components to a balanced workout routine. It’s effortless in that it can be done virtually anywhere, anytime and requires zero equipment. Many people choose not to stretch, however, because they fear doing it incorrectly and injuring themselves as a result. People want to know:
• What type of stretching should I do?
• Is it important to stretch only when muscles are warm?
• Should I stretch a muscle until you feel pain?
• Is there an order in which muscles should be stretched?
All these questions are enough to overwhelm even the most die-hard exercisers among us. You don’t want to miss out on this important aspect of achieving peak fitness and health. Invest a few minutes now to learn the basics of stretching and you’ll reap a lifetime of reward.
Why You Should Stretch
When performed properly, stretching does more for your body than increase flexibility. If done consistently, stretching helps to:
• preserve joint range of motion – something that's typically lost with age
• increase feelings of relaxation – both muscular relaxation and overall relaxation
• prevent injury
• improve overall body awareness
Weight loss, you may have noticed, is not on this list. This is another reason many people don’t make time to stretch – they don’t view it as essential to their weight loss goals. While you aren’t burning many calories in the stretching phase of a workout, you are laying the foundation for your entire exercise routine.
R2 April 2009
When to Stretch
As with many concepts in the fitness community, precisely when to stretch is still a hotly debated topic. One group insists that stretching “cold,” or pre-warm-up, is the way to go, while the other camp maintains muscles must be stretched when “warm,” or following brief cardiovascular activity. The current prevailing thought is to stretch your muscles when they are already warm. This may surprise you, as many of us have been trained to view the stretching process as our warm-up. It is not. It’s a crucial element of the warm-up routine, but not the place at which you should start.
Tip: Before you stretch, take three to five minutes to elevate your core body temperature. This can be done via any aerobic activity, from jumping jacks to briskly climbing a flight of stairs. Elevating your core body temperature means that your muscles are more pliable and your risk of accidental overstretching is significantly lowered.
Choose a Stretching Style
The various forms of stretching can also serve as a point of confusion for the novice stretcher. Let’s define each type so you can select the method that best serves your goals.
Ballistic stretching is a method of stretching that utilizes momentum or bouncing to force a muscle to stretch beyond its current limitations. Unless you work with a personal trainer, this most likely isn’t the method to choose, as risk of injury is high.
Dynamic stretching is another technique that, while useful for activities such as dance or martial arts, isn’t advocated for the traditional exerciser. Dynamic stretching is stretching while in motion. It consists of controlled arm and leg swings that bring you right up to the edge of your muscle’s stretching capacity.
Active stretching and static stretching are the two most common forms of stretching.
In active stretching, you assume a position and maintain it with no assistance other than the strength of your muscles. An example would be extending your leg in front of you and holding it in position. In this stretch, the quadriceps muscles (front of the leg) tighten in order to allow the hamstrings (back of the leg) to stretch.
The most common form of stretching, and the form discussed in detail later in this article, is static stretching. During static stretching you gently elongate a muscle to its farthest point; hold the position for a moment and slowly release the stretch. The movement is fluid and there should be no pain involved.
Developing a Stretching Routine
Your body is warm, you’ve chosen your style, and you’re ready to get started. Where to begin? Not surprisingly, the order in which you stretch muscle groups is important. The reason we should all follow a stretching routine is that when we work to elongate a specific muscle, the surrounding muscles are also worked. While these supporting muscles don’t receive the bulk of the stretch, it’s important to make sure they are prepared before you target the major muscle group. Sound confusing? It isn’t. Bottom line: If you don’t pre-stretch the helper muscles, they will limit the amount you are able to stretch the major muscle group – and that’s definitely not our goal.
This stretching order is a good way to work all the major muscle groups:
• back (upper and lower)
• quadriceps (front of legs)
• hamstrings (back of legs)
Tip: It’s helpful to print this list and post where you plan to stretch. The order will quickly become second nature and until then, you’ll have a reminder.
Keeping just a few other ideas in mind will serve to make your stretching experience more physically beneficial and enjoyable.
• Controlled breathing helps relax the body and increase blood flow. Inhale through your nose as you stretch, hold the position for 15-20 seconds and exhale through your mouth as you slowly release the muscle.
• Stretch slowly. Not only will this protect your muscles it will also allow you to fully benefit from the stress-reducing element of stretching. Lastly, perform each stretch three times. This repetition will allow you to stretch more deeply each time.
• For floor stretches, try using a mat or folded towel as a cushion for comfort.
Craving specifics with regards to stretches? A good starting point is as simple as If it feels good, do it! We’ve all seen the cat stretch done for back muscles. Get on all fours and give that one a try. Inhale as you arch your back upward and exhale as you lower your back to concave.
Another stretch we’ve all seen is for the quadriceps or front of the leg. Hold on to a chair for balance, stand on one foot, grab the opposite foot and pull it behind you: heel to buttocks. Can you feel a gentle pull down the front of your leg? Hold the stretch briefly and slowly return your foot to the floor.
The best way to create a comprehensive stretching routine is to see illustrated examples – either in a book, online or by viewing an exercise video. If you find good examples in a book or online, print or photocopy the exercises and post them in an exercise area. These sites offer illustrations of all the muscle groups listed above.
• The American Heart Association illustrates some stretching and flexibility exercises
in all the muscle groups listed above.
• The Women's Heart Foundation site offers some illustrated stretching exercises for women
in all the muscle groups listed above.
• The Expert Village site offers some helpful free stretching videos
• The National Institutes of Health Senior Health site
offers some stretching exercises
for older people.
Stick With It
It can take up to two weeks to feel bodily changes from stretching, so stick with it! No matter what your workout of choice, resolve to find at least five minutes for your new stretching routine. Even this short amount of time can give remarkable results.
Tip: Whatever method you select, be sure to refuel immediately post-workout with a high-protein snack. An Atkins shake or bar is an easy, portable option.