Stretching can seem intimidating to people. It sounds silly considering it’s one of the first things you learn in PE class as a kid, but when you talk about the importance of stretching, people often think of yogis contorting their bodies in impossible to mimic positions and don’t get much further than a five-second bounce of toe touching before moving on with their workout. If this is your regular routine, you probably don’t even realize how tight your muscles are.
The truth is that stretching helps protect your mobility and keeps your muscles flexible and strong while helping maintain a healthy range of motion. It can also help with athletic performance. Twelve-time Olympic medalist, Dara Torres, credited her resistance stretching coach for keeping her successful in the pool well into her 40s. Still not convinced? Keep reading, we’ll make you a believer.
Why should I stretch?
Have you ever had to sit in one position for an extended period of time, say cramped in a tiny airplane seat or even at your desk for too long, and you get up to find that your body doesn’t want to move? You feel aches, maybe hear a pop, and it takes a couple steps before your body finds it’s rhythm. That’s because when your muscles are inactive they become short and tight. The longer you are immobile, the worse it gets.
When you do try to use your muscles again, they are weak and don’t properly extend, so you feel stiff and increase your risk of injury. Muscle damage, strains, even just joint pain are common among people who don’t take the time to stretch. The reason is because your muscles support joint mobility. When one is too tight, it can leave you susceptible to a host of problems, including pulling your joints out of alignment and restricting movement.
Stretching also allows your blood to properly flow where it needs to go, allowing for better circulation throughout your entire body. Picture your muscle like a dish towel. When you twist the towel up like a tightened muscle, it isn’t able to absorb water as well. The same goes for your muscles and blood flow. If you are too tight, the blood can’t easily flow where it needs to go.
How to get started.
You want your muscles long and flexible. Incorporating stretching into your normal routine is the best way to achieve this. It can be daunting in the beginning, we know. You might experience a little discomfort because you are most likely not as flexible as you used to be or because you don’t know where to start. That’s okay! The key is to execute the stretching properly and start slow. Work on the areas that you know help with mobility, typically your hips and legs, as well as the muscles that get tight from sitting hunched over your desk or screen all day, like your shoulders, neck and back. The key is consistency. You can build your routine to include more muscles over time.
When you execute these stretches, you want to feel a slight burning sensation, but never pain. If you feel pain, you’ve gone too far and risk injury. Don’t try to push yourself too far too fast. Stay consistent and you’ll gain flexibility quicker than you think. If the pain persists, stop stretching and see a doctor for possible injury. You want to hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, try not to bounce as this can cause a strain, and then slowly return to start. You can complete three to four reps of each stretch.
Your hamstring runs down the back of your thigh, from your buttock to your knee. For this stretch you want to lay on your back to prevent you from cheating by hunching your shoulders to get more reach. With one knee bent to protect your lower back, straighten the other and raise it to the ceiling as far as you can without bending the knee. Once you feel the stretch, hold for about 30 seconds, lower and repeat with the other leg. You can use a band or strap to hold your foot if that’s helpful.
The largest muscles in your body, your quads run along the front of your thigh from hip to knee. To execute, stand near a wall for balance, and bend one knee, bringing your foot up behind you. Grasp your foot, making sure not to cheat by pushing your hips back, and hold for about 30 seconds. The closer your foot is to your body, the deeper the stretch. Lower and repeat with your other leg.
This is one of the easiest to execute and one of the most overlooked. To perform this stretch, face the wall and stand about 3 feet away. With your hands against the wall, take one foot back, keeping your leg straight. Allow your front knee to bend until you feel a stretch in the calf of your straight leg. Hold and repeat with your opposite leg.
For this stretch, you want to take a knee. Get into a lunge position with your knee on the ground about hip-width behind your front foot. Make sure you keep your chest up and hips square, then press your hips gently forward until you feel the stretch. If you want to take it a step further, pull your back foot up to add a quad stretch.
Seated Back Twist
Sit on the floor, back tall and legs straight. Bend your left knee and place your foot over your right leg next to the knee. With your left hand on the ground for support, bend your right elbow and place the back of your arm against your left knee and press, exhaling while you twist your spine. Hold, rest and repeat on the other side!
When do I stretch?
When performing any stretch, make sure that you warm up your muscles with five to ten minutes of activity first, as research now shows that stretching “cold” muscles can cause injury. Get the blood flowing with 10 minutes of light cardio so that your body is ready to go and you benefit fully from your stretch session.
The most important time to stretch is after a hard workout. It’s easy to want to skip out after a long run or gym sweat session, but taking the time to do so will keep the muscles from tightening up and can prevent unnecessary soreness post-workout.
Just remember that one day of stretching won’t fix months of immobility or tightness. This is a practice to build on and you need to do it repeatedly in order to see a difference. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more flexible you’ll become. If you stick with it, we promise that your future self will thank you for it.