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Stretch yourself for maximum benefits

One of the most important parts of an exercise routine is preparing for it properly.


The average exerciser generally doesn't do enough stretching, joining hundreds of others who tend to devote more of their exercise time to burning calories or getting stronger.

While it is true that stretching is a very important part of any exercise program — and becomes even more important as we age — it is also true that it is the most neglected component of fitness.

For motivation, you might consider flexibility gains from stretching an anti-aging investment, as stretching lengthens the muscles that increase your freedom of movement. How our joints move may depend upon many factors outside our control, such as genes and structure of our joints, but we do have control over the flexibility of our muscles.

For years it was believed that static stretching (stretch and hold) before exercise would decrease injuries, prevent postexercise soreness and improve exercise performance. Current research tells us there is no evidence of such benefits. Today the preferred way of warming up for any physical activity is through dynamic (active) movements rather than static stretching. Save static stretches for the end of the workout, when muscles are warm and more receptive to the stretch. Static stretches are also safe and effective for everyday home exercisers. (See tip box.)

Types of stretching

Static Stretching: This is the most popular form of stretching. You gradually stretch your muscle or muscle group until you feel mild tension (never pain) and hold that stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Good to do after any physical activity.

Dynamic Stretching: Using continual, controlled movements through a full range of motion. An example would be leg swings, knee lifts and lunges. "Dynamic stretching increases body and muscle temperature, enhances joint flexibility and increases muscle elasticity through a range of motion," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D,, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. Good for warming up.

Ballistic Stretching: Bouncing with repetitive movements to take the stretch beyond its normal range of motion. It is not recommended for the average exerciser. This type of stretching can place too much tension and trauma on the muscle being stretched and the connective tissue.

Myofascial Release: This is a type of self massage that you can do at home. Apply pressure on the tight muscles you want to stretch by sliding those areas over a foam roller. For information on foam rollers, check out Power Systems (

Why stretch?

1. It improves flexibility by helping your joints move through their full range of motion.

2. It helps to reduce lower back discomfort.

3. It improves posture, balance and coordination; stretching the back and shoulders will help prevent a slouching back.

4. It improves circulation as it increases the blood supply to the muscles and joints.

5. It keeps muscles more supple.

6. It's a good stress reliever, helping to develop mental and physical relaxation.

7. It just feels good.

Static stretching tips

1. Always warm up before stretching. Stretching while muscles are cold and tight could result in muscle tears and strains.

2. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat several times; no bouncing into the stretch.

3. Incorporate all major muscle groups into your stretch routine.

4. Never force a stretch. Stretch until you feel mild tension, not pain.

5. Breathe slowly. Inhale just before going into the stretch and exhale through your mouth as you stretch. Take several deep breaths while holding the stretch.

6. To reduce muscle imbalances, stretch tight muscles and strengthen weak muscles.

7. If you are doing strength exercises, try stretching in between sets.

Diane Robinson, 65, demonstrates static stretches.

Sitting piriformis stretch

The piriformis muscle is a deep hip muscle in the buttocks. Sitting straight on a chair or ball, cross left leg over right leg, with ankle resting just above knee. Gently press on inside of left thigh while leaning slightly forward, until you feel the stretch in your hips. Another easy version is simply to sit cross-legged on the floor, leaning slightly forward.

Shoulder stretch

Because shoulders are used in practically every upper-body movement, it is recommended to both strengthen and stretch the deltoid muscles. Standing straight, knees relaxed, place feet hip-width apart. Keeping shoulders even, extend right arm across chest, wrapping left arm under upper right arm. While holding the stretch, take several deep slow breaths.

Hamstring stretch

(back of thigh)

Tight hamstrings are quite common. Lying on a mat with one knee bent and the other leg extended on the floor, slowly raise extended leg, bringing it toward chest without lifting back or buttocks off the floor; do not lock knees. With foot flexed, hold onto the back of the thigh or leg with both hands, holding for stretch. Lower leg slowly to floor. If muscle is too tight, relax the knee more or try wrapping a towel or belt around your foot.

Curved C stretch

This stretch increases the flexibility of the spine and sides of the back. Holding onto a support with one hand, raise other arm out to the side and slightly overhead as you lean away, forming a curved C position.

Stretch yourself for maximum benefits 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 3:30am]
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