To stretch or not to stretch? There shouldn't be a question!

Stretching is one of the easiest, yet most often neglected components to a balanced workout routine. It can be done virtually anywhere, anytime and requires zero equipment.

Why You Should Stretch

When performed properly, stretching does more for your body than increase flexibility. While you aren't burning many calories in the stretching phase of a workout, you are laying the foundation for your entire exercise routine. If done consistently, stretching helps:

• Preserve joint range of motion—something that is typically lost with age

• Increase feelings of relaxation—both muscular relaxation and overall relaxation

• Prevent injury

• Improve overall body awareness

When to Stretch

Stretch your muscles when they are already warm. 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 with aerobic activity, from walking or running to jumping jacks or 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

There are four types of stretching:

Ballistic stretching uses 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.

We focus on:

Active stretching has you hold 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.

Static stretching is the most common form of stretching. During static stretching, you gently stretch a muscle to its farthest point; hold the position for a moment and slowly release. The movement is fluid and there should be no pain involved.

Developing a Stretching Routine

Your body is warm, and you're ready to get started. Not surprisingly, the order in which you stretch muscle groups is important. When you stretch 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. 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.

This stretching order is a good way to work all the major muscle groups. Here are some suggested stretches:

  • Back (upper and lower): Get on all fours and inhale as you arch your back upward and exhale as you lower your back to concave. Repeat.
  • Sides: Stand with your feet together, fingers laced together. Raise your hands above your head while lengthening your arms, torso and legs. Slowly bend to one side and hold for five seconds. Return to your starting position. Repeat on the other side.
  • Hips/Buttocks: Sit on the floor with your right leg bent and your left leg extended. Turn your body toward your right leg that is bent until you feel a stretch in your hips/buttocks. Repeat with your left leg.
  • Quadriceps (front of legs): Hold on to a chair for balance, stand on one foot, grab the opposite foot and pull it behind you: heel to buttocks. Hold the stretch briefly and slowly return your foot to the floor.
  • Hamstrings (back of legs): Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor. Slowly straighten one leg, lifting it into the air toward your body. When you stretch as far as you can without bending the leg, hold it for five seconds. Lower the leg and repeat on your other legs
  • Triceps: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Raise your right arm and bend it behind your head, grabbing your right elbow with your left hand. Your right palm should be in the center of your back. Reach your fingertips down your spine. Repeat with your left arm.
  • Chest/Biceps: Stand with feet shoulder width apart or sit. Lace your fingers behind your back and extend your arms back straight, while keeping your shoulders down and your back straight.

Tips for Better Stretching

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It can take up to two weeks to feel more flexible, so stick with it! Try to stretch for five minutes once you've warmed up.