Are you just getting back into exercise? If so, rather than go full force with a new routine right away, it may be better to start off with stretching. Yes, stretching. You're probably thinking that stretching is just something you do before and after exercise, but there are actually other types of stretching the qualify as exercise in itself (think yoga), that can help make you body fit, trim and healthy without a lot of stress.
What is Stretching?
Stretching is the force applied to lengthen, expand and lubricate muscles. Stretching is important to fitness because it increases flexibility, balance and coordination and primes your muscles for more intense exercise. If you are stretching to get your body ready for a workout, then the consensus among fitness experts is that light stretching should be done after a warm-up exercise and a full stretching routine after more vigorous exercise.
Types of Stretching
Dynamic stretching involves slow movements that allow your joints to reach their full range of motion. For instance, extending your arm out from your body as far as it can go is considered to be a dynamic stretch. When doing this type of stretching, it is important not to bounce or violently swing your body. Because you are extending your joints to their fullest, quick movements can result in damage to the joints. Instead, make your movements slow and steady. And if you don't have the flexibility yet to reach your fullest range of motion, that's okay. Just go as far as you can.
This relaxed form of stretching actually doesn't require you to move your body. Instead, you tighten the muscle you would like to stretch. Looking to strengthen the legs? Then clench your thigh, butt, or calf muscles. Hold the clench for a few seconds before releasing. This will help to increase your muscle stamina as well. These easy stretches can be done anywhere at home, at your desk, or even in the car.
This form of stretching is the type the majority of people know. If you normally stretch after a good workout, then passive, or relaxed, stretching is what you are doing. Passive stretching requires you to sit or stand and use your arm or hand to hold a particular position (for instance, using the left arm to hold the right arm across your body in order to stretch out the upper back and shoulder) for 10 seconds or more.
Similar to passive stretching, active stretching requires you to hold a stretch using nothing but the strength of your muscles. Unlike passive stretching, you would not use your hands or some other body part for assistance. Because these types of stretches are more intense, they are usually held for just 10 seconds.
Ballistic stretching is generally not recommended as it can lead to injury. This type of stretching refers to forcing your limbs beyond their normal range of motion when they are not warmed up enough to perform the stretch. Some argue that, by bouncing, you can use the momentum of your own body to force the limb into an extended position. Again, though, this type of stretching can lead to injury since it doesn't give your muscles a chance to relax or adjust to the stretch. Rather, it can actually cause your muscles to tense up.
During vigorous exercise like running, swimming, cycling and strength training, your muscles are repeatedly flexing and contracting. To prevent sports injuries, it is best to engage in a full series of stretching exercises for all major muscle groups. The major muscle groups are the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, iliotibial band (ITB), lower back muscles, shoulders, neck and chest muscles. Ideally, you should stretch your major muscle groups as often as you exercise or three times a week.
Stretching should be approached with caution if you have certain kinds of injuries. There are certain rules you should follow when stretching:
- Warm up with an activity first for at least five minutes, this will lubricate your muscles so they are ready for exercise
- You should hold your stretches from 30 to 60 seconds. Problem areas should be held at least 60 seconds.
- Do not bounce while stretching as it can cause tears in your muscles
- Reduce your stretch if you feel pain
- Remember to relax and breathe while stretching
- Stretch opposing muscles equally
- You can stretch lightly after a warm up but engage in a full stretch after your workout
Stretching to Prevent Injury
If you do not plan to stretch lightly after warming up you could be at risk of injuring yourself if you begin working out at a hard level. Make sure to begin gradually so you do not injure your muscles while they are cold.
Stretching offers many benefits to those who exercise regularly as well as to those who do not exercise.
- Muscles are more flexible
- Gives your joints a greater range of motion
- Improves blood circulation
- Gives you better posture
- Provides stress relief
- Increases balance and coordination