Even the most dedicated fitness buffs can often neglect what is one of the most important aspects of their workout and their long term fitness: flexibility. Stretching is not considered by many to e a crucial part of their workout regime, when it is actually an important tool to be used to support the work you do during your workout.
Many reasons are given for why people don’t bother to stretch after they exercise. Some think that stretching is boring, especially after an intense workout. Others feel they would rather dedicate the time it would take to another set of reps, and still others simply don’t see the point. Some people have the attitude, “I don’t get stiff, so why bother stretching?” There are many benefits to a regular stretching routine, including improved performance, muscle endurance and a reduction in potential injuries.
The reasons why stretching should be a part of your workout really outnumber why it is not. One of the more convincing reasons for those who are hardcore fitness buffs, and therefore believe that stretching is just taking time away from a more optimal parts of the workout, is that stretching and muscle flexibility actually support many of the your fitness goals.
Flexibility can directly improve your performance and muscle development in several ways. The first is expanding your range of motion. The wider the range of motion in a joint supporting a muscle group, the more fully you will be able to work that muscle group. Flexible joints also use less energy to move in their full range of motion. If your fitness routine involves a sport such as golf or baseball, the wider the range of motion in your joints, the more power you will be able to generate on your swing or throw.
If your workout includes a strong resistance training component, and your goals include bulking up, then stretching will have several positive impacts. The first is that stretching speeds up the recovery process. Recent studies have shown that stretching accelerates protein synthesis in the muscle, allowing the muscle to recover faster and allowing you to get back on your game faster.
Second, you know that the more you work your muscles, the shorter they get. Stretching your muscles prevents that shortening of the muscle, thereby preventing injury to the muscles, which will certainly set that workout regimen back by a few weeks. This lengthening of the muscle also prevents time’s natural effect on your muscles: as you age, muscles and connective tissue around the joints become less pliant.
By regularly stretching your muscles and the connective tissue around your joints, you fight the aging process that threatens easy mobility as you age. In effect, it keeps your muscles “younger.”
In terms of your daily life, flexibility not only keeps the muscles younger longer, it also supports your daily activities such as lifting, bending and reaching. It also staves off muscle soreness from an overzealous workout, salvaging the day after for any other of life’s activities that you need to accomplish. It is much easier to keep up a workout regimen if it doesn’t mean sacrificing the day after to muscle stiffness as well. Finally, stretching is a great way to relax and release stress held in your muscles, whether they are knots from your workout, or from your day.
How To Stretch
Now that you are convinced that your workout indeed cannot do without a flexibility component, the key is to figure out how to stretch effectively, safely, and efficiently, treating it as you would any other part of your workout.
The best way to do this is the same way your would approach any new aspect of your workout: if you do not know the basics, get a professional to show you. If you just go ahead and make something up, you likely be wasting your time, or worse, end up with an injury.
Here are some very basic guidelines to stretching:
- Ease your muscles into a stretch: You will encounter resistance for the first ten to twenty seconds and then your muscle will relax, allowing you to sink deeper into the stretch. Hold the stretch for a few second after the relax, as that is when the deep stretch is attained.
- Know your limits: Your muscles will tell you when you have reached the limit of a stretch. Every person’s flexibility level is different, so if the person next to you is attaining a deeper stretch, you will gain nothing by trying to match or beat them. In fact, if you over-stretch your muscle, your body will react by contracting the muscle in self-defense. This, of course, is completely counterproductive to a stretch. A stretch should never hurt or feel uncomfortable. If it is, you are pushing too far.
- Do not bounce: Bouncing into a stretch increases your potential to over-stretch and pull the muscle.
- Do not stretch cold muscles or injured muscles: If you feel the need to stretch before you work out, warm your muscles up with 5-10 minutes of light cardio before attempting to stretch them. Cold muscles are not as limber as warm muscles. If you have an injured muscle, allow it to heal before you attempt to stretch it.
- Relax and breathe: Worked muscles need oxygen to recuperate so don’t hold your breath. Instead, breathe deeply for a relaxing and stress-releasing effect.
As with any part of your workout, the longer you work on it, the more efficient your body will get. Once your body becomes accustomed to stretching regularly, your flexibility will steadily improve and your muscles will take less time to reach the relaxed state they need to achieve to optimal stretching. If you stretch at the end of your workout, it will also be a signal to your body that the work is over, and the time to relax and start recovering has arrived.