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All About Stretching

Static stretch Before or After a Workout?
Whether it's best to stretch before or after a workout tends to be a controversial subject among fitness experts. It really depends upon the individual and the type of activity they are doing.  Ultimately, it's best to do whatever works best for you.

The important thing is to make regular stretching a part of your exercise routine.

Recent studies seem to indicate that slow, easy stretching (or what we call static stretching) may temporarily reduce muscle strength and power, so if you're a competitive athlete, it is best to wait until after competition or exercise to perform static stretching.

People who are thirty years old and up, especially if they've already had back issues, may still benefit from at least some static stretching before they workout. The objective is to ready the joints, ligaments, and musculature of the lower back. Static stretching of the large muscles of the legs - the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves - helps to also elongate and loosen the lower back muscles and related structures.

So, for many of us, performing a slow, easy static stretch routine first, followed by a brief dynamic warm-up, is the best way to help ensure a safe and enjoyable workout.

You may be wondering what the big deal is about stretching.  Well, first and foremost, stretching is important because it helps to improve your flexibility and lengthen your muscles.  Also, when you stretch and lengthen the major muscles of your legs ( the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles) you also lengthen and loosen the muscles of your lower back, which can help relieve and prevent lower back pain. Similarly, when you stretch your arms and shoulders, that can have a positive effect on your middle and upper back too.

Recent exercise physiology studies indicate that it is best to do slow, static stretching after exercise rather than before.1 Before you exercise, try performing more "dynamic" warm-ups, such as light jogging, arm circles, jumping jacks and other large movements like twisting your torso side to side.  This will help to get your muscles warmed up and ready to work out.   If you have back problems though, it's a good idea to also do the familiar static stretches even before the dynamic warm-up!

Take your time when you stretch.  You can't hurry a stretch, and if you rush, you risk pulling or straining a muscle.  Ideally, include ten or fifteen minutes of stretching as part of your regular exercise routine.

Static stretching should be performed very slowly and gently.  Don't push it or try to stretch further than what feels comfortable.  Stretching is a Zen-like activity - being mindful of what you are doing and how your body feels.  Just relax and enjoy the feeling of lengthening your muscles.

Your breath is also very important.  Taking slow, deep breaths will help you and your muscles relax, allowing you to get the most benefit from your stretching time.

It also helps to visualize (hold a mental image in your mind) of the muscles you are stretching. This will help you to establish a brain-muscle connection, making your muscles smarter!

Here are a few basic static stretches to get you started:

  • Start with stretching your hamstrings while lying on your back with one knee bent and that foot on the floor.  You will be stretching the hamstrings (back of the thigh) of the opposite leg.  Holding your other leg behind your knee, gently bring your leg toward your chest.  When you feel a comfortable stretch, try to gently straighten that leg to increase the stretch slightly.  Repeat by bending and then gently straightening your leg several times.  Then switch to the opposite leg and repeat the process. Take your time, remember to breathe, and don't try to increase your stretch beyond what is comfortable.
  • Stretch your quadriceps next.  These are the muscles that make up the front of the thigh.  Stand with your right side next to a wall and place your right hand on it for balance.  Bend your left leg and use your left hand to grasp it just above ankle.  Gently bring that left heel close to your buttock as you feel the stretch in the front of your left thigh.   Try to keep your thighs parallel while you do this. Briefly hold this stretch, take a few nice, relaxed breaths, and then repeat on the opposite side.
  • To stretch your calves, stand facing a wall, both feet forward and your hands lightly placed on the wall a little lower than shoulder height.  Bend one knee and place the foot of the opposite leg directly behind you. Your weight is focused on your front leg. The back knee should be almost straight and the back heel should be on or close to the floor to stretch the calf muscles.  Hold this stretch for approximately ten seconds, feeling the calf gently stretch as the back heel reaches toward the floor.  Repeat on the other side.

1Behm DG, et al: Effect of acute static stretching on force, balance, reaction time, and movement time. Med Sci Sports Exercise (36(8):1397-1402, 2004.

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