People may not see or feel the immediate value of stretching, so they leave it out thinking they will save time. However stretching and flexibility have the following benefits:
- Mental and physical relaxation
- Reduced stress
- Reduced risk of joint, muscle, and tendon injury
- Reduced soreness after workouts
- Improved ability to perform daily tasks as we get older
Flexibility plays a key role in daily life, too, in terms of basic activities like reaching up for things on high shelves, bending down to pick things up, and reaching around to the right or left. Think of the palm trees than bend and can survive hurricanes, while rigid trees simply snap in half.
Proper stretching, however, requires knowing the techniques for stretching safely. For example, it’s important to engage in at least five minutes of aerobic activity such as jogging, jumping rope, or any other activity that will get your blood pumping. This activity will raise your core body temperature and get your blood flowing. Increased blood flow in the muscles improves muscle performance and flexibility, and reduces the likelihood of injury. If you do an aerobic activity as part of your workout, such as an aerobics class, the treadmill or an exercise bike, after your session is an excellent time to stretch since your muscles are nice and warm.
Ideally, a particular stretch should work only the muscles you are trying to stretch. Focus on relaxing the specific muscle you are stretching, along with all the bones around it. Breathe deeply as you do so. Isolating the muscles worked by a given stretch means that you do not have to worry about having to overcome the resistance offered by more than one group of muscles. In general, the fewer muscles you try to stretch at once, the better. For example, you are better off trying to stretch one quadriceps at a time than both at once. By isolating the muscle you are stretching, you experience resistance from fewer muscle groups, which gives you greater control over the stretch and allows you to more easily change its intensity.
Static stretching is the correct way to stretch. Static stretching means stretching as far as is comfortable, and holding that position for a set count (usually 10-20 seconds) and then releasing. A common mistake people make when stretching unsupervised is to move into the stretch quickly and then bounce in an attempt to stretch the muscles and joints further than possible by just using their body weight or by gently pulling.
It's good to stretch all the major muscle groups in your body regardless of which area your workout will focus on. However, you should concentrate most of your stretching on the areas that you will primarily be using in your workout. For example, if you are going to be running, you should do several different types of leg stretches, but you should also stretch your shoulders, neck and sides.
Here are some guidelines to help you in adding proper stretching to your exercise routine:
- If you are injured in any way, do not stretch, or stretch gently under the supervision of a trainer or medical professional.
- Stretch in a warm environment if possible. Stretching in the cold is counter-productive.
- If you feel any sharp pains while stretching, stop.
- Before stretching, be sure you are in the correct starting position.
- Keep breathing naturally while stretching and do not hold your breath.
- Slowly come out of stretches.
- Always avoid bouncing. Bouncing can over-stress the muscles and lead to injury.
- Hold a stretch for 20 seconds to get the most benefit.
- If you are stretching so hard you aren’t breathing normally, stretch less aggressively.
- If you aren’t sure how to stretch properly, schedule a session with a personal trainer to learn about the best stretches for you.
Stretching is best done every day to achieve the most flexibility. You probably want to avoid stretching first thing in the morning, when your muscles are least pliable. If you drive to your gym, be sure to stretch before you get in the car to go home. Sitting after a workout tightens your muscles. Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids after your workout, which will help with muscle regeneration and suppleness.
Ideally, combine your stretching routine with some relaxation exercises or meditation. It can become a treasured part of your day, as well as a healthy component of your fitness regimen.