The Rules of Stretching

stretching-title We hear a lot about the importance of exercise, but much less about the importance of stretching.

In the past, I know I’ve been guilty of skipping my stretches at the end of a workout. But I really shouldn’t have.

And when I was working my desk job for all those years, I rarely if ever got up and stretched out my poor muscles during the day. But I really should have.

Because flexible muscles are an important component of overall physical health. Muscles that function at their normal, resting lengths are happier and safer muscles. Among other things, flexible muscles help your joints move through their normal ranges of motion. That, in turn, can decrease injury and allow your muscles to operate at their optimal level of function.

About a year ago, Nikki slipped on the wet sidewalk outside of our building. While she did suffer a partial tear in her quadriceps muscle, she recovered relatively quickly. She maintains that one of the reasons it wasn’t a worse injury is because she works so hard on maintaining her flexibility. When she fell, her leg muscles were limber enough that they could absorb most of the strain put on them by the impact.

Stretching helps us to maintain that critical flexibility; it delivers blood flow (nutrients) to our muscles; and it increases oxygen delivery to our brains. All good things.

Every Thursday in January I will be posting some of my favorite stretches for you, but I wanted to share my rules for stretching first. So here they are:

Only stretch warm muscles. I cannot stress this one enough. Stretching without warming up can cause you to tear muscle fibers, which will be painful. I do my stretching after I exercise, spending about 5-10 minutes on the major muscle groups I worked that day. If you don’t have time for a full workout, but still want to do some stretching, just do a quick 5-minute warm-up first. Take a walk; do just the warm-up portion of your favorite workout DVD; repeat the dynamic warm-up exercises you do with your trainer—get those muscles warm and blood flowing before you start stretching. Stretching cold muscles = injury and bad times.

Slow, steady stretches are the ticket. I cringe when I see people bouncing in their stretches. And I see it more often than I'd like. Once you settle into a stretch, stay still there for 30-60 seconds. Bouncing movements can cause tears and injury to the muscle fibers and are not effective.

Breathe. Often people hold their breath while they exercise. I do it too sometimes. Not sure why. I guess it seems like it’s helping, but it really isn’t. Just as breathing during exercise is important, breathing through your stretches is important too.

Never stretch to the point of pain or force a stretch. You can probably guess where I’m going with this—if you stretch to the point of pain, or try to force a stretch you will hurt yourself. Relax into your stretches. When you reach resistance in the muscle, stay there for 15 seconds or so and breathe. The way to communicate with a muscle is simply to think about it. So, think about that muscle relaxing and softening (as cheesy as that may sound). At about the 15 second point, you may find you can relax a little bit deeper into that stretch. If so, feel free to take the stretch a bit further. But again, it should never be painful. It should feel good to stretch and if it does not, back off a bit.

Make stretching a habit. As with other components of a healthy lifestyle, consistency is key. If you exercise several times per week, stretch after each session. Regardless of whether you are doing regular resistance or aerobic exercise, aim to complete a stretching session that targets all the major muscle groups in your body (calves, thighs, hips, back, neck and shoulders) at least 2-3 times per week. Your flexibility will improve each time you stretch.

Sitting is not easy. A quick note for those of you who spend your workday sitting at a desk—sitting is tough on your body. I know that seems counter intuitive, but it’s true. Among other things, excessive sitting can cause tightness in your hip flexors and hamstrings, and can actually cause your gluteal muscles to atrophy. That in turn, places additional stress on your knees and lower back.

Here's what I did to help combat the physical effects of my desk job. I got up every hour and walked around for a minute or two. Sometimes I just walked circles in my office, but on my morning and afternoon breaks I took a 5-10-minute walk outside. Walking was my warm-up, so after that I did about 5 minutes of stretching. I spent a lot of time stretching out my shoulders, back and neck as well as my legs, hips and glutes. Sitting at a computer is rough on your upper body too.

So a big yes to stretching, right? Have I convinced you to stretch yet? Or if you’re already stretching, have I made you feel like a rock star for doing so?

I will be back tomorrow with some of my favorite stretches for the lower body. See you then!