The Beginner’s Guide to Stretching

Article posted in: Fitness
a woman stretching indoors on a yoga mat

Can you touch your toes? Sit crisscross applesauce? Put your foot behind your head? Okay, okay, we’re kidding with that last one. If you answered yes to any of those questions, pat yourself on the back. If you answered no, it’s time to start stretching!

The Benefits of Stretching

man stretching arms

Why do we stretch? According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints.” They explain that without stretching, your muscles can get shorter and tighten up, putting you at risk for joint pain, strains and muscle damage the second you start moving again. Stretching regularly can help to promote balance and long, lean and flexible muscles.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) also credits stretching with reducing muscle stiffness and tension, increasing range of motion, decreasing the risk of injury, relieving aches and pains after exercise, promoting good posture, decreasing stress and promoting good circulation. With so many positive health benefits of stretching, it’s no wonder why so many people incorporate it into their daily regimen!

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Types of Stretching

a woman stretching her leg in front of stairs

When you take a deep dive into the world of stretching, things can get a little complicated. Unless you’re a seasoned fitness fanatic, you may not know where to begin. According to ACE, there are several different categories of stretching, including static stretching, dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching, active isolated stretching (AIS), myofascial release and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

“While the benefits of stretching are known, controversy remains about the best type of stretching for a particular goal or outcome,” says the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT). They explain that for a typical fitness program, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests “static stretching” for most people after an active warm-up, at least two to three days per week. “Each stretch should be held 15-30 seconds and repeated 2 to 4 times,” says the researchers.

According to IJSPT, older adults may need longer stretch times: Research shows that holding static stretches for 60 seconds was associated with greater improvements in hamstring flexibility in older adults. “Furthermore, the effectiveness of type of stretching seems to be related to age and sex: men and older adults under 65 years respond better to contract-relax stretching, while women and older adults over 65 benefit more from static stretching,” says IJSPT.

The Pre-Workout Warm Up Stretch

a woman doing yoga indoors on a yoga mat

While static stretching is a recommended part of an exercise routine, it can be dangerous to do this on cold muscles. “Before stretching, warm up with five to 10 minutes of light activity. Better yet, stretch after a workout. Keep stretches gentle and slow. Don’t bounce. Breathe through your stretches. If you feel pain, you’ve stretched too far,” says Mayo Clinic.

Before every fitness class she teaches, Brenda Colyer, group exercise coordinator and personal trainer at St. Vincent’s One Nineteen in Birmingham Alabama, says she guides her class through a pre-workout flexibility routine. “At this time any stretching that is done should be performed in a gentle, rhythmic pattern that simulates the workout that will follow,” she says.

Gentle is the key word. You can actually damage “cold” muscles by putting them through stretches that are too demanding. Some examples of gentle warm up exercises include arm circles, taking deep breaths and reaching up towards the ceiling or sky, rolling your shoulders or marching in place.

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The Post-Workout Cool Down Stretch

a person doing a post work out stretch on a yoga mat, indoors. stretching

So you just spent an hour at the gym? Don’t skip the cool down, says Coyler. “We often see hurried, type-A people skip the cool down and it’s typically those people who could benefit from it most!” she says. “Properly recovering can leave us in a more relaxed state.” It also brings our heart rate and core temperature down. Plus, it preps and loosens muscles for future workouts.

The bad news: There are more than 600 muscles in the human body. The good news: You only have to stretch a few of them—and most are on the lower half of your body: the calves, hamstrings, hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the thigh. We’ve included a few basic stretches below for these hard-working muscles.

Please note that the cool down stretches below are post workout moves. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds and simultaneously focus on deep breathing to calm and oxygenate the muscles. Pay attention to your body as you stretch each muscle. If one hamstring feels tighter than the other, stretch that muscle longer and more often to alleviate tension. You may find that a foam roller can help with muscles that are consistently and/or painfully tight.

Calves

According to Dorset County Hospital, stretching the calf muscle will “allow your foot to function more effectively.” The provide three different calf stretches.

  1. Stand in front of a wall with one foot in front of the other. Keep your back knee straight and lean forward towards the wall while bending your front knee. You will feel a pull in the calf and Achilles tendon. Hold this for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three times on each leg.
  2. Stand in front of a wall with one foot in front of the other. This time, as you lean towards the wall, both of your knees should be bent. You will feel a pull in the lower part of the calf muscle. Hold this for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three times on each leg.
  3. This last move requires a step. Stand with the ball of your foot on the edge of a step with your heel off the edge. Drop your heel down towards the ground, taking as much weight as you can through this leg. Dorset County Hospital suggests holding onto something while you perform this stretch, as it is more difficult than the two stretches above. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat three times on each leg.

Hamstrings

ACE recommends the seated toe touches to stretch both the hamstrings and calves. This will also provide some stretching in your low and middle back. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Your toes should be pointed to the ceiling and your knees should not be bent. Sit straight up with your head and spine aligned, and your hands on top of your thighs.

Exhale and slowly bend forward from the hips, bracing your abdominal muscles as you move your hands down towards your ankles. “Attempt to maintain a flat back position and avoid rounding your back towards the ceiling (i.e., move from the hips and not your low back),” says ACE. Keep bending and reaching forwards until you feel tension in the stretch. Do not bounce or push until you feel pain. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds before your return to the start position. Repeat this move two to four times. “You may elect to grasp your ankles to hold this position,” says ACE.

Hip Flexors

According to Mayo Clinic, “Your hip flexors, which allow you to lift your knees and flex at the waist, are located on your upper thighs, just below your hipbones.” They recommend the following stretch:

Get down onto your right knee, using a folded towel for cushion. Place the other foot in front of you, bending at the knee. Place your left hand on your left leg for stability. “Place your right hand on your right hip to avoid bending at the waist. Keep your back straight and abdominal muscles tight,” says Mayo Clinic. Lean forward and shift more body weight into your front leg. You should feel a stretch in your right thigh. Hold this stretch for about 30 seconds. Switch your legs and repeat.

Quads

“Your quadriceps muscle runs along the front of your thigh,” says Mayo Clinic. They suggest the following stretch for quads:

Begin in a standing position near a wall. Bend your left knee back and hold your left foot behind you in your left hand. Hold onto the wall to balance, if needed. Intensify the stretch by pulling your heel up and back. You should feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. “Tighten your stomach muscles to prevent your stomach from sagging outward, and keep your knees close together,” says Mayo Clinic. Make sure your kneecap is pointing directly to the floor. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat on the other side.

The South Beach Diet recommends exercising for at least 30 minutes every day in the weight loss phase and we also recommend daily stretching after every session. If you aren’t working out every day, aim to stretch three or four times a week.

*Always speak with your doctor before starting an exercise, fitness or stretching routine. 

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