Stretching: The Important Element of Exercise You Forgot About

Our muscles can do two things-contract (shorten) and extend (lengthen). Most folks tend to get hyper focused on either the strengthening part or the extendability part, usually depending on what they are good at.  You will see people who build muscles well in the gym lifting weights. Alternatively, people with excellent flexibility generally enjoy yoga and dance. Some of us are just average at both.  The fact is that both are equally important. When you think about optimizing the way your muscles work for you, it is just as important to be mobile as it is to be strong, so you should pay equal attention to both.  Muscles support joints and the best way to protect a joint is to surround it with equal parts strength and flexibility.  For purposes of this post, we are here to concentrate on flexibility. 

 

When is the best time to stretch your muscles?  

Directly after you have worked them. Muscles are a lot like taffy.  When they are cold, they don’t stretch very well. When they are warm they stretch well just like taffy. Muscles like to be around 102 degrees when you stretch them; This is about how hot your body gets when you’ve worked up a sweat.  For example if you have just finished doing some cardio, like walking or running on a treadmill or another aerobic machine it is wise to follow that up with a stretch. The same thing goes for weight training, it is best to follow your weight training with rolling or stretching your muscles as well. 

 

How long should I stretch?

Hold each stretch by counting 10 breaths.  

 

How can I stretch?

There are basically two ways to stretch-longitudinal and rolling.  

  1. Longitudinal stretching Longitudinal stretches are the traditional movements in which we bring a muscle to a point of tension, hold it at the ‘edge’ of the stretch or the point at which you begin to feel tension and then place your focus on the breath, especially the exhale of the breath.  There is something about the exhale of the breath that causes a muscle to relax. The length of time you hold a stretch is usually the duration of 5-10 breaths. With the exhale of each breath you allow the muscle to lengthen, but take care not to force a stretch, just stay at the edge and breathe. Forcing a stretch can actually be counterproductive.
  2. Foam Rolling. Rollers are a bit different in the way they affect the muscle because they are focussed on the point at which the roller is in contact with the muscle.  You use your body weight to control the downward pressure over the roller. There are points called trigger points that as you roll longitudinally along the muscle, the sensation of pain over a specific point of the muscle increases or ‘ramps up’.  The instruction is to stay on that trigger point and breathe deeply, again with the focus on the exhale of the breath and relaxing over the trigger point until the sensation eases or for 30 seconds, whichever comes first.

 

There is no substitute for actually being shown the individual stretches and procedures with the foam roller, so for this it is best to spend some time with a personal trainer. This way you can be certain that you are deriving the benefit first by understanding and then by doing things the way you are instructed.  While being taught, it is ideal to take pictures of each movement with your phone so you can be reminded of what you were shown.

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