The Benefits of Stretching Workouts and Fitness
Stretching prevents injury by lengthening the soft tissues that surround your joints. Both overuse and underuse shorten these tissues, limiting the range of motion in your joints. A limited range of motion makes it impossible for you to leverage your full muscular potential and, more dangerously, puts you at risk for injury.
Your high-speed and load muscles – the hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, back muscles, and biceps – are most vulnerable to muscle tears. To reduce the risk of pulling a muscle, make stretching these muscles part of your daily routine.
Stretching relieves back pain by building flexibility in the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. Alternate gentle forward-bending and backbending stretches to slowly lengthen the back muscles without straining them.
By making it possible to leverage the full potential of your muscles, stretching improves your athletic performance. Stretching improves a range of functional abilities – like reaching, bending, and twisting – that make kicks, swings, and hits easier.
Stretching relieves muscle tension, which reduces physical and mental stress. A stressed body tenses up, which can lead to a number of adverse effects including restricted circulation and chronic back pain. Combat both the physical and mental effects of stress by stretching routinely.
Weight Loss and Fat Burning Potential
You’re exercising regularly and losing weight. Fantastic! It’s always encouraging to see your body change in response to the blood, sweat, and tears you’re putting into working out. The quicker your body changes, however, the more vulnerable it is to injury.
A sprained ankle or pulled hamstring can take you out of the gym and onto the couch for weeks or even months. It’s absolutely essential, then, to stretch regularly to prevent injuries and pulled muscles. Target the high-speed and load muscles we talked about earlier for best results.
While yoga probably isn’t going to make you skinny, it’s an excellent complement to any weight-loss exercise. Practice restorative yoga poses, like child’s pose (balasana) and reclining hero pose (supta virasana), for a well-rounded, gentle stretch. Other poses, like downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), target high-load muscles specifically.
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
A balanced length to tension relationship improves the motor unit recruitment of a muscle. Focusing too much on length-building or tension-building activities can throw this ratio off and limit your muscle fiber recruitment potential. A strong muscle isn’t too short and also isn’t too long.
The key is balance. If you train for strength, stretching will improve the length to tension ratio of your muscles, increasing the amount of force you can exert and, essentially, making you stronger. If, however, you train hard for flexibility without balancing with some strength training, stretching your muscles will actually just make you weaker.
Classes: What to expect; should I take them?
Athletes often overlook and underperform stretching exercises. A highly active person might, for example, have trouble delaying a workout to get in a good stretch first or be too exhausted at the end of that workout to dedicate energy to good stretching habits. It’s understandable, but it’s also a recipe for injury.
Classes that focus on flexibility training – like yoga classes, for example – will help you develop a consistent stretching routine and may, actually, make you enjoy that routine. If you aren’t naturally motivated to stretch, a class will keep you committed (at least for an hour).
Stretching isn’t always intuitive. While you’re still a beginner, it’s useful to have an instructor to guide you through each stretch. A good instructor will give you a fundamental understanding of technique and safety that you can use in your own practice later on.
Instructional Stretching Videos and Training Tips
Before stretching, spend five minutes warming up with a light jog. Muscles are more supple when blood is circulating faster and, therefore, you’ll get more benefit out of stretching warm muscles than cold. After your workout, cool down with another round of stretching.
An oft-cited study on hamstring stretches concludes that, to really affect flexibility, you need to hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds (Bandy 1994). There is, actually, a direct correlation between the duration of a stretch its effect on increasing the body’s range of motion.
You don’t want to bounce in and out of stretches. Not only is this method less effective than holding each stretch for a prolonged period of time, it’s also dangerous. Prevent muscle strain by easing into every bend and extension.
Likewise, the study concluded that you need at least six weeks of regular stretching to significantly increase the range of motion of a joint. If you fall out of the habit of stretching, you lose flexibility fast. Routine, then, is key.
When you stretch, breath. If the stretch feels intense, you’ll probably want to hold your breath, but doing so reduces your flexibility and increases your panic. Instead, breath “into” the muscles that feel most resistant to help release mental and physical tension.
Really, you don’t have to do the splits to get the benefits of flexibility training. A gentle routine of easy stretches – after your warm up, during a break at work, or before you go to bed – is just as beneficial. To build flexibility gradually, work these accessible yoga poses into your everyday routine:
Stand with your feet hip distance apart and bend forward from the hips. Keeping your back straight, place your hands on your shins or, if possible, touch your toes. Standing forward bend (uttanasana) stretches the muscles of the calves, the hamstrings, and the back.
Widen your stance so that there is approximately three feet between your left and right foot. Bend forward from the hips. Take hold of the outside of each ankle. Wide-legged forward bend (prasarita padottanasana I) stretches the muscles of the calves, the hamstrings, the inner thighs, and the back.
Step your feet approximately two-and-a-half feet apart. Rotate your feet and hips to the right. Bend forward, over the right leg, from the hips. Hold the post. Then, rotate your feet and hips to the left and bend over the left leg. Triangle pose (trikonasana) stretches the hamstring muscles deeply.
Sit with your legs extended. Bend forward, over your legs, from the hips. Keeping your back straight, place your hands on your shins or, if possible, touch your toes. Seated forward bend (paschimottanasana) stretches the muscles of the calves, the hamstrings, the buttocks, and the back.
Lay on your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet close to your buttocks. Then, press your hands into the ground and lift your buttocks up. Bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) stretches the lower back and shoulder muscles.
Lay on your back. Bend your knees and draw them to your chest. Without lifting your right shoulder off the ground, rotate your lower body to the left and drop your knees to the ground. Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) stretches the back and buttocks muscles.
Clothes and Proper Attire
Choose loose-fitting or stretchy clothing for stretching. You want to keep the blood flowing to your muscles when you’re holding each stretch, so definitely avoid pants or shorts with a constricting waistband. Opt instead for loose-fitting bottoms or yoga pants with a wide, comfortable waistband.
Personal bests are a great way to measure your progress in speed or strength training, but not a great way to measure your progress in flexibility training. Always pushing yourself to be more flexible than you were last time isn’t a great way to get better. It’s a great way to get injured.
Your flexibility depends on a hundred different things: your bone structure, your age, your past injuries…even the temperature outside and the time of day can affect it! Be wary, then, of setting benchmarks on your flexibility, since it’s more dynamic than something like strength or speed.
Building flexibility can, however, have measurable effects on your ability to generate force or speed quickly and with varying levels of intensity. Coordination is key to an excellent performance and, by expanding your range of motion and your potential for muscle fiber recruitment, flexibility delivers improved motor skills.
Athletes – in sports as varied as golf, weightlifting, gymnastics, running, and soccer – need flexibility to reach their full potential. Flexibility plays a role in actions like explosive sprinting, cutting, agility, hitting, swinging, throwing, and changing directions. A balanced body handles intense physical actions like these better.
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