One of the most important, but often overlooked aspects of fitness is stretching. No, I’m not talking about turning-into-a-pretzel-at-hot-yoga-type stretching. I’m talking about a general, gentle stretching you should be doing everyday. While it’s accepted that a mix of strength training and cardio are crucial for your health, maintaining flexibility of your muscles is equally as important to your overall health and well-being.
Benefits of Stretching
When done correctly and safely, stretching is beneficial for your body for a variety of reasons.
Reduces the Risk of Injury During Exercise
Stretching can help improve your flexibility, which leads to an increased range of motion in your joints. This allows your muscles to work most effectively, and may decrease risk of injury by promoting normal, efficient body movements.
Improves Blood Circulation
Stretching increases the blood flow to your muscles, helping bring more nutrients (including oxygen) to your cells. That, in turn, helps promote your overall athletic performance. In addition, this also increases the nutrients in your muscles to aid in preventing muscle soreness post-workout.
Improves Your Posture
If your postural muscles are always tight, it may contribute to an imbalance in your body. Stretching can help lengthen tight muscles that pull parts of your pelvis, shoulder girdle, and spine away from their intended position, resulting in improved upright posture. Proper posture can aid in proper functioning of internal organs.
You may not have noticed that stress manifests in physical ways, and many of us “hold” our stress in our muscles. Stretching can help to relax tense muscles, and promote relaxation.
Reduces Lower Back Pain
By stretching tight hamstrings and hip muscles, you can achieve increased range of motion and flexibility resulting in less stress on your pelvis and spine. By preventing tight muscles from pulling on your pelvis/spine, stretching promotes upright posture and decreases back pain caused by muscle tightness.
Before You Stretch
Stretching should be done with caution because you could hurt yourself if you do it incorrectly. Here are some tips to help you know how to stretch safely and effectively:
- Always warm up your muscles before stretching. You always want to stretch your muscles when they’re warm, and not “cold.” If your muscles aren’t warmed up, they’re like uncooked spaghett––inflexible. That’s why you’ll need to do some light cardio exercises like jumping jacks, jump rope, or a short 5-minute run to help prevent injury. You can also stretch after a workout when your muscles are warm and loose!
- Pick the right stretch for the sport/activity you’re training for. There’s a difference between dynamic and static stretching. For runners, I recommend controlled, dynamic stretching before a race, and static stretching after a race. This may be different for other sports, so it’s recommended to incorporate stretches that will help you with your sport/daily activities.
- Focus on stretching the “big” muscles if your body. That’s your back, neck, hips, calves, etc. Focus on muscles you use often or that often get tight in your daily routine.
- Don’t hold your breath as you stretch! I encourage mindful, deep breathing strategies while stretching.
- Back off if you feel pain when you stretch. You should be feeling tension–not pain–when you stretch, so only stretch until you feel the tension and hold the stretch there.
- Stretch regularly. I recommend stretching at least once a day, but if you can do more, that’s even better! A great daily routine would be to stretch in the morning after waking up, and before going to bed at night. Do what works for you, so if stretching every other day is better, then stick with that. Some stretching is better than no stretching!
- Stretch both sides of your body. This might seem obvious, but you’ll be surprised how you may forget to stretch your left arm or left side of your back when you’re still waking up that brain in the morning. Achieve balance in your body.
Example Daily Stretch Routine
I put together this example stretch routine you can use everyday. My recommendation is to hold each stretch at end range (meaning when you’re feeling the tension) for about 10-20 seconds. Repeat this routine once or twice a day.
With your elbow bent, use your left hand to pull your right elbow behind your head as far as possible while keeping your right hand close to your shoulder. Repeat with your left arm.
Seated Back Twist
Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Bend your right knee and cross your right foot over your left leg. Next, put your right hand on the floor next to you, bend your left elbow, and turn your trunk to the right while placing the back of your left arm against your right knee. Sit with your back straight and look over your right shoulder. Repeat on the left side.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Kneel on the floor with both knees bent. Lunge your right leg forwardâ€“â€“your right knee should be bent in front of you at a 90 degree angle, right foot flat on the floor. Place both hands on your right knee and press forward, leaning into the stretch. Keep your trunk upright, and be sure not to lean your right knee over your right toes. Hold. Repeat on the left side.
Sit on the floor. Put both soles of your feet together with your knees bent out to the sides. Holding your feet, slowly lower your body and head/neck towards your feet. Hold.
Standing Thigh Stretch
Stand tall, with one hand holding onto a wall or railing for support. Bring your right heel towards your butt and use your right hand to grasp the top of your foot. Press your right foot into your hand to deepen the stretch. You should feel a stretch along the top of your thigh. Hold. Repeat on the left side.
Perform several of these slowly (rather than holding for a long period of time) as a slow transition. In a quadruped position, first rotate your pelvis up towards your body and curve your spine up towards the ceiling, head in towards your body. Hold for several seconds and then slowly begin to rotate your pelvis away from your body, curving your trunk towards the floor and bringing your head up, looking towards the wall. Repeat back and forth several times to wake up the spine.
Standing Side Stretch
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and your arms clasped together overhead. Reach upward as you bend your trunk to the right. Hold. Repeat on the left side.
Note: before starting any new fitness routine, including a stretching routine, consult a doctor to ensure it’s safe for you. Also, be aware of your body throughout stretching. Be mindful of any pain or discomfort, for which I recommend consulting a doctor.