Common question: “How do I stretch, and why?”
Flexibility refers to a muscle’s ability to get longer when it needs to be able to change length. The purpose of working on flexibility is to prevent injury, to help your posture, and to balance the other two parts of our fitness trilogy (strength and cardiovascular exercise), which tend to make muscles tighter and shorter.
Flexibility can increase the overall quality of your life by making sure that muscles and bones can react to different movements (tensions) during the activities of daily life. When movement around joints (flexibility) is ample, then there is decreased risk for injury because the body moves with more efficiency. When connections are tight, the risk for injury rises; simple movements like picking up dropped car keys could overstretch the back, putting you out of commission for many days, because your muscles aren’t flexible enough to support the change in posture against gravity when you bend down and then return.
Flexibility does not always feel good; the tighter we are, the worse it can feel when we stretch. A safe guideline for stretching is to find a point of discomfort that is not pain and to hold that position of stretch for at least 20 seconds. The American Council on Exercise tells us that, if you can repeat this several times in a single stretching session, you are likely to see more results than if you just stretch periodically.
The best way to stretch is to learn how to put the body in a position that keeps it neutral and supported so the muscles you are trying to stretch can elongate while the rest of your body remains in alignment. Stretching and bouncing during a stretch increases the potential for injury because this actually makes the muscles shorter instead of longer! Stretches should be slow and controlled, without much movement.
You can stretch muscles by standing, sitting, and lying down, as long as you know what you’re doing. Muscles stretch better when they are warm, so the best times to stretch are when your body is warm from a shower or from light movement exercise. Waking up on a cold winter morning is not the best time to stretch without doing a bit of movement first to warm up those muscles, even if that means walking around for a minute.
Stretches that incorporate the whole body can be done on the floor. It’s a great place to start because the floor helps support and protect the body, so there’s less chance to fall, lose balance, or come out of alignment.
Try this: Lay on the floor or on your bed, face down, and come up onto the elbows, pushing the shoulders toward the floor and opening the knees as wide as the hips. Bend the knees so the feet come towards the sky. This stretches the muscles all along the front of the body: thighs (quadriceps), hips (hip flexors), and torso (abdominals and pectoralis major in the chest). For a balancing stretch for the muscles down the back of the body, come onto hands and knees from that position. Round the back so you look at your belly button, like an angry cat, lowering the head towards the pelvis without bending the elbows.
Flexibility in the body will increase your ability to do daily functions and to help prevent injury. Remember that there are other types of flexibility that are important for your overall health. Flexibility of the mind can help you manage stress: you become able to bend your will and to accept both things you cannot control and also the wishes of other people. Flexibility of our approach to different people, cultures, and ways of doing things can decrease stress, as we cease trying to impose our will on the world. Flexibility of tolerance means that we allow for different styles of doing things that may not be congruent with our own, without judging the differences.
How will you develop your own flexibility?
Guest post by Lawrence Biscontini, Mindful Movement Specialist, fitness expert, and Senior VIP Consultant for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Power Music®.