Why is stretching important?
Stretching properly will increase your flexibility. I will admit to you that I strongly dislike stretching. I have always been this way as long as I can remember. In fact, my first yoga class in the early 1980’s was nothing short of torture for me.
When I became a fitness professional, I learned all about flexibility and its virtues, even taught fitness yoga classes for a few years, but still prefer to run or lift weights to stretching. That said, I do stretch, especially after a run or after sitting at my desk for too long and teach all of my clients to stretch!
I know plenty of people who love to stretch. Lots people practice yoga and Pilates to improve their flexibility. Others have a good stretching routine that they adhere to religiously. Those who love to stretch, love the way it feels, see progress in their flexibility, and some even prefer stretching to working out.
Can we find a happy medium here?
Why do many people feel the same way that I do about stretching?
Is it because stretching is something that is done at the end of the workout, and often there is not enough time for it?
Is it because it is not endorphin-producing and calorie-burning?
Is it uncomfortable for those who are not flexible?
My guess is that a lot of people don’t stretch because they don’t really know how to stretch!
If this is you, let me explain flexibility and stretching to you in a simple way that can open the door for you to approach it from an educated vantage point versus an unsolved mystery.
What Is flexibility?
In reference to the body, flexibility is defined as “range of motion (ROM) around a joint”. A person can be flexible in one area, but very inflexible in another. For example, many people have tight hamstrings (muscles on the back of their thighs), but their quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh are flexible.
ROM around a joint helps insure proper movement. Your joints (i.e. shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, spine, knee, ankle), are meant to move, but also to be stable. There is a huge
difference between being flexible and being hypermobile, as Jenni Rawlings explains here.
A classic example of being inflexible is tight hamstrings. Someone with tight hamstrings who sits down and tries to stretch them while keeping their legs straight, will inadvertently lean forward, reaching for their toes, and round their back in the process. What is getting the biggest stretch here? Not only are the hamstrings not being stretched in the most effective way, the back is being stretched in an unsafe way for most people.
Having a stretching routine takes a concerted effort, of course, but it is also important. Inflexibility in one area will affect other parts of the body. If your hamstrings are super tight, for example, when you bend over to pick something up, you will likely bend over and round your back just like we discussed above about stretching the hamstrings, and all it takes is repeatedly doing this for many people, and that one time too many, out goes their back.
We have established the importance of stretching. Let’s go over the basics.
Stretching basics for improved flexibility
- Never bounce a stretch.
- A stretch should never hurt, especially in the joint itself.
- Hold each stretch for a 10-30 seconds.
- Breathe through your stretch. Inhale and exhale. Feel your muscles release as you exhale.
- Find a mild discomfort as you move into your stretch, and back off. This is where you will hold your stretch.
- Aim for symmetry. The Mayo Clinic suggests that you attempt to be as equally flexible on one side of the body as on the other.
- Be a proactive stretcher. Stretch periodically during the day, especially if you sit at a computer for hours or travel a lot. Stretch after your workout. Some stretches, such as stretching your chest and shoulders, are great to do in the evening to help you unwind and relax.
- Know when to stretch.
- Limbering movements (or dynamic stretching) are done before a workout (such as active yoga moves like downward dog and cats/cows or some side to side lunges, etc.
- Actual static stretching is best done after a workout to help relieve muscle tightness. According to Web MD, “Everyone is more flexible after exercise, because you’ve increased the circulation to those muscles and joints and you’ve been moving them.”
What are the best static stretches for beginners?
- Chest stretch
Wall stretch for tight chest muscles (great for computer users, new moms, photographers, avid readers….). Stand at a wall and place one hand on it while gently turning away from the wall. You will feel a stretch in the front of your chest and shoulder.
- Shoulder stretch
Reach across your chest and gently draw the other arm toward the opposite side. This will stretch the rotator cuff muscles.
- Neck stretch
Sitting in a chair (or on a bench), reach underneath the side of the chair and as you pull against it, stretch your neck to the opposite side.
- Lower back stretch
Lie on your back and hug both knees into your chest. You can even roll gently side to side.
Lie down on your back and with one knee bent and foot on the floor, bring the other leg up with your hands (or strap) gently until you feel a stretch.
Too tight and stiff to reach your foot? This stretching strap is awesome because it ha several loops for a hand and/or foot!
Product Stop Stretch Out Yoga Strap …
- Quads (front of thighs)
Standing up, grab your foot and gently draw it behind you until you feel a mild stretch in the front of your thighs. Some people may need to use a yoga strap or place their foot on a chair in order to do this stretch. You should never feel pain in your knee when doing this. If you do, stop!
Lying on your back, with both knees bent, feet on the floor, pull one knee toward your ribs toward the opposite side of your body.
- Calves and ankles
Standing near a wall with one foot about 6 inches or so from the wall, the other foot behind you, press that front knee toward the wall until you feel a stretch in the back calf one or both calves.
- Wrist (very important for computer users)
Reaching both hands in front of you, gently press back on the fingers of one hand until you feel a mild stretch in the underside of your forearm. Turn your hand over, and press on the tops of your fingers, bending them toward the underside your wrist for a great stretch in the front of your forearm.
Putting it all together
Try these stretches at the time when they make the most sense for you to do them. If you work out at a gym, or at home, stretch either periodically during your work out, or at the end of your work out. If you sit a lot during the day, get up and move your body (i.e. walk down the hall for a minute) and try some chest and wrist stretches. The above stretches are a great way to get started, but there are many other stretches to try as well.
Remember that fitness includes muscle strengthening, cardiovascular conditioning, and flexibility. Taking time for all three is key to taking care of your body.
If you would like to learn more about flexibility training for beginners here is a book you can read:
Stretching Exercises For Beginners
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By Sue Bream yoursimplehealthylife.com