Flexibility training, commonly referred to as stretching, is a frequently overlooked but extremely important component of an exercise program. Most people finish their workout and go on with their day without stretching their muscles. Sound like you? If so, read on to learn why stretching is so important and how to incorporate it into your workouts.
As always, if you are unsure of which stretches are safe and appropriate for your personal health conditions, please check with your doctor.
Why Should I Stretch Every Day (or at least after I exercise)?
Stretching has so many benefits which we will introduce here:
- Improves range of motion (ROM) – Regular flexibility training allows your joints to move through their full range of motion so that the body can bend, twist, and reach farther.
- Can decrease risk of injury – Because regular stretching increases range of motion, joints have more mobility and flexibility which reduces the risk of getting hurt while moving.
- Helps relieve muscle stiffness, tension, aches, and pains – Muscles that are overworked become tight and short which results in stiffness, tension, and pain. The best way to loosen these muscles is through stretching (as well as massage and heat).
- Improves posture – Poor posture and tight muscles are cyclical: tight, overworked muscles can cause poor posture, and poor posture can cause tight, overworked muscles. By lengthening and stretching these tense postural muscles, we can improve our posture.
- Keeps muscles from getting too tight after a workout – Are you seeing a theme yet? When we contract our muscles, they become shorter. If this is not balanced out with stretching post-workout, then they can stay short and develop more tension.
- Improves circulation – Stretching breaks up lactic acid and helps facilitate the removal of waste byproducts throughout the body. This allows blood, oxygen, and nutrients to move freely throughout the body, thus increasing blood flow and circulation.
- Improves functional performance – Since stretching improves range of motion, reduces the risk of injury during movement, and keeps muscles lengthened, people who stretch are able to do more with their bodies than those with tense, overworked muscles.
- Promotes relaxation – Stretching has a calming effect on the mind, muscles, and joints which promotes relaxation throughout the entire body.
- Can make you stronger – Stretching can make you stronger in multiple ways. 1) Stretching gives your body a greater range of movement during exercise, thus recruiting more muscle fibers and making the exercise more effective. 2) Your body creates tiny tears in muscles during exercise which, when rested and repaired, results in greater strength and muscle size. Stretching increases circulation throughout the body which sends more nutrients to the muscles during the repair phase. 3) Since regular stretching reduces the risk of injury, you minimize the chance that you will have to take time off of strength training as a result of hurting yourself during exercise.
To Stretch or Not to Stretch? (Before Exercise)
You have probably heard conflicting advice on stretching before exercise: stretch or don’t stretch. So what’s a person to do?
Proponents of stretching before exercise say that it can help increase your range of motion throughout poses and keep short, tight muscles from getting even shorter and tighter. On the other hand, a “cold” muscle can become injured if stretched without being warmed up.
Bottom line: It is generally safe (and even beneficial) to stretch before exercise as long as you warm up the muscles beforehand. Also, some people who have health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. are encouraged to stretch before an exercise program.
Tips for stretching before exercise:
- Before stretching the legs, try a light aerobic warm-up for 3-10 minutes. This could include walking or a sequence of movements such as the following:
- Marching in place for 60 seconds
- Jumping jacks for 30 seconds
- Jogging in place for 60 seconds
- Butt kicks for 30 seconds
- Before stretching the upper body, it is also suggested to warm up the upper extremities for a few minutes. Try some of these warm-up exercises:
- Arm circles
- Light punches
- Making letters with your arms (Y, T, W, O, etc.)
- You can also totally play the YMCA song and make the letters with it. =)
Stretching After a Workout
After a workout, you should stretch each muscle that was used for at least 15-60 seconds. I have my clients hold each stretch for 30 seconds or more to allow the stretch to get deeper and loosen up the muscles even more. There are a variety of stretches you can do for each muscle group that I will post in an upcoming blog.
Just be sure that when you stretch, it’s “comfortably uncomfortable” – not painful as in you’re injuring the joint or muscle.
Be sure to do at least one stretch for each the major muscle groups after working them out:
- Hamstrings (back of thigh)
- Quadriceps (front of thigh)
- Glutes (buttocks)
- Back (upper and lower)
- Shoulders (front and back of shoulders)
If a particular muscle feels tighter than others, give it some extra loving and stretch it again.
Stretching a Chronically Tight Muscle
If you have a chronically tight muscle (for example, your shoulders are always achy and tight), then you should build a stretching routine into your everyday life to reap the most benefits and really loosen up the muscle. You will make the most progress from consistent daily stretching.
Here are some tips for stretching your constantly-tight muscles:
- Massage or apply heat to help relax the muscle.
- Stretch that muscle 2-4 times throughout the day.
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. You can do the stretch two times or so in one sitting if you have time.
- Stretch these areas before and after a workout, following the guidelines above.
- Repeat every single day.
It is also a good idea to strengthen the antagonist (opposite) muscles to help relieve tightness. For example, if you have tight hip flexors (muscles at the front of the thigh), you should work on strengthening your glutes and hamstrings. Similarly, if you have a very tight or achy lower back, work on strengthening the abdominals.
Now get off the internet and go do some stretches!
If you’re looking for a personal trainer to travel to your home and you live in or around central Maryland, contact me here.