Take a minute. Stretch those arms overhead, and rise up onto your tiptoes.
Feels good, doesn’t it?
Stretching your muscles is more than a feel-good pause upon waking and during your workday. It’s an intrinsic part of any exercise program, or at least it ought to be.
Elongating the muscles you rely on to get up and go is time well spent, and while it’s tempting to skip the bending, holding and twisting at workout’s end, you’ll be thankful for the self-care the next day when you’re raring to go instead of cramped and sore. You’ll be thankful in the long run, too, since properly stretched sinews prevent injury.
Stretching is more than just touching your toes. Improving range of motion for the entire body requires all your parts to get busy. There are as many ways to stretch as there are to exercise, and the well-rounded fitness guru incorporates multiple forms into their routine.
Self-myofascial release is a massage technique using foam rollers. Fascia is the connective tissue that covers your muscles, and SMR can help keep reduce knots within the muscles and correct muscle imbalances. It can be a way to warm up and to cool down.
Foam rollers come in a variety of densities depending on the intensity you wish to experience.
“SMR targets the knots that traditional stretching misses, the trigger points deep down in the muscle tissue,” said Anthony Estrella, a fitness consultant for Gold’s Gym. “It can be painful, but the benefits outweigh the discomfort, and keep in mind, when you start foam rolling, it’s best to find the area in your muscle tissue that hurts the most and then really lean into it.”
Referring to the practice of rolling the lower and upper body along a dense foam tube, he said, “It’s best to move slowly, too, about a quarter-inch at a time, bearing down directly atop a trigger point for 30 to 60 seconds. That gives the muscle time to release.”
Sounds simple but be assured, it works wonders when done diligently.
Exercise balls are another great stretching tool, said gym manager Suesan Pawlitski.
“I use them in class to stretch back, abs, chest and shoulders.”
As do her fellow instructors.
Denise Simpson, teacher of a stretching-only class, said, “Try a ball anywhere from 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Place it strategically underneath your body—your neck, or your lower lumbar, for example—and lie back. Your body weight will do the rest, eventually tilting you into proper form.”
The certified senior fitness specialist is adamant about the importance of stretching.
“You can’t just strengthen, you have to lengthen,” she said. “It’s the only way to maintain range of motion in the joints.”
There are bound to be occasions when even the most conscientious athlete doesn’t want to bother with stretching. Days like those are perfect for employing a little outside assistance.
Whether with an exercise partner or a fitness trainer, there’s nothing as luxurious as a little assisted stretching at the end of a workout. Such stretching can improve active and passive range of motion, as well as motor performance and muscle recovery.
You have only to experience the technique to notice the results are dramatic.
Austin Lopez, a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist, said such stretches can help a trainer gauge a client’s strength.
In describing one such move, an active-flexibility stretch, he said, “The client lies prone, and I grab the leg, go ahead and lift up, stretching deep through the hamstring, and after they hold this position for eight to 10 seconds, I have them force against the hold. What you actually see when this hold is released is there is a little more length to the hamstring because of the tightening of the tissue. I’ll repeat this anywhere from three to four times in a row: 10-second holds, with about a 20- to 30-second resistance factor.”
The trainer said stretching is appropriate both before and after a workout.
“There is some thought that static stretching before working out takes away from performance,” Lopez said. “That it prefatigues the muscle, but that all depends on the person, how tight or relaxed their muscles are.”
As a fitness buff, I have to agree. There are some days when I can hit the ground running and others where a pre-workout stretching session makes all the difference for duration and quality.
Dynamic stretching such as walking lunges usually do the trick, those and some walking torso twist high steps, but everyone’s stretching needs are unique.
Just remember, whether you’re yogi-flexible or desk-jockey stiff, your muscles will benefit from both a warm-up and a cool down, and your stamina will, too.
Karen Robiscoe is a certified fitness trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a published author of short fiction, essays and poetry. Email Robiscoe at email@example.com or visit charronschatter.com.