Maintaining healthy eating habits, quality sleep, and physical fitness are all crucial components to optimal health. In terms of physical activities, people often focus on burning calories or building muscle. However, improving flexibility is one of the simplest ways you can start feeling your best right away and reverse many signs of aging. In this article, you will learn how stretching and certain types of exercises can help improve flexibility. But let’s start at the beginning…
Flexibility is the quality of bending easily without breaking. It also relates to the range of motion in a joint or group of joints, and the ability to move the joints effectively in many directions.
Two kinds of stretching to reach optimal flexibility:
- Active (or dynamic) stretching is moving the body slowly but rhythmically (without bouncing), warming up the body gently, which moves blood and lymph through your system and discourages stagnation. You can begin active stretching before getting out of bed in the morning and is a wonderful way to begin the day.
- Static stretching means holding a stretch in a position without moving. Static stretching is best when your muscles are warm. Hold static stretches for 15-30 seconds.
Benefits of Stretching:
- Feeling good during day-to-day activities like bending to pick something up, squatting to put on shoes, or lifting up a child.
- Stretching improves posture and lengthens tight muscles that pull areas of the body away from their intended position. Spending time at the computer can cause tight throat and chest muscles, which pull the shoulders and head forward, causing the shoulders to hunch.
- When your muscles are flexible you are less likely to become injured during physical activity. Sudden movement or reflexes (like reaching for a falling cup) can tighten tissues, pull a joint out of alignment, or cause a subluxation (partial dislocation of the vertebrae), which causes pain and further tightening of tissue. If your joints and ligaments are flexible this is less likely to happen.
- When your joints and muscles are flexible, you use less energy while in motion, which improves your overall athletic performance. Inadequate flexibility can diminish athletic performance by preventing you from reaching the full potential, strength, and power of your muscles.
- Stretching increases blood and nutrient supply to muscles, which offers an overall healing benefit and allows the body to function optimally. Taking deep breaths while you stretch relaxes the body and mind.
How Stretching can Prevent Injury
Think of it this way…
What happens when you don’t stretch? Nothing. For a while.
You lift weights, run, or even just go for walks. You get stronger, increase your cardio power, and are feeling good. You get leaner. You look good. Who wants to waste time stretching? Then you wake up one day and you have a slight pain in your lower back. Nothing major, but it hurts as you get out of bed. You instinctively try to stretch it out. You lean over and touch your toes, which are very far from the tips of your fingers. It helps a bit, so you forget about it. You keep training. You start to notice that after sitting all day at work, your lower back is aching. You try to stretch it out but it lingers. Not the biggest deal though, because once you get warmed up for your workout things feel okay. Then one day you’re doing a deep squat and you feel something tweak in your lower back. That hurt. You don’t stretch it out this time because it’s hard to breathe. It feels like you need your spine popped back in place.
At this point, most people credit this to an unlucky break. It’s genetics or something like that. But this could have been avoided. So what happened here? From a physiological point of view, let’s use the hamstrings for example, the muscles gradually got stronger and tighter until they started to pull the pelvis down with them. This is called a posterior pelvic tilt and it changes the curvature of the spine. When sitting all day continuously reinforces this, the results will be retraction of the hamstring muscles. The lumbar curve got lost, posture went out of alignment and this can lead to a vertebral herniation. It is a story that is unfolding all too often because people refuse to work on their mobility/flexibility. Everything feels good until it doesn’t. And it’s understandable because mobility work isn’t that exciting. The bottom line is, if you want to stay pain and injury-free, having a strong body is only part of that battle. Having a mobile body is essential.
Incorporating Stretching into Your Life:
If you exercise rarely:
Find a yoga or Pilates class that you enjoy and try it once a week. An hour per week of hot yoga, Pilates, or yin yoga will make a difference.
If you exercise regularly:
Try mobility intervals. Use recovery time in between workout sets to stretch your tightest muscle groups: the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors in your lower body and the chest, thoracic spine, and lats in your upper body. This helps to break up your mobility work into manageable pieces. Dynamic stretching is best to do before a workout and static stretching is best after. Do static stretches after a cardio routine. When weight training, immediately do active or static stretching after working each muscle group, not after the entire routine is over.
A Myth about Post-Workout Stretching:
Post-workout stretching does improve flexibility and range of motion, but stretching after working out does not significantly reduce muscular soreness. When we exercise, our bodies release lactic acid. When it builds up in the muscles it results in sore muscles. The best way to minimize soreness is to keep moving after a work out to circulate the leftover lactic acid. You can also take an Epsom salt bath, rest, eat protein, and allow the muscles to rebuild.
Gentle and Beneficial Stretching Routines:
- Stretch to the point where you feel some mild tension but if you feel any pain, stop and pull back until you feel no pain.
- Breathe normally when stretching; never hold your breath.
Active Stretches for the Entire Body:
Lying in Bed:
- Pull knees into your chest and relax. Hold for a few deep breaths.
- Straighten your legs and reach for your calves or ankles. Gently pull the legs toward your face while tucking your chin to your chest. You’ll feel a nice stretch from the top of your head to your ankles. You may want to bend one knee, straighten, then bend the other and straighten to warm up the muscles in the back of your thighs.
- Bend your knees into your chest again and then lower them to the left and look to the right. Relax and hold for a few deep breaths and change sides. Roll gently out of bed and begin your daily routine or continue on with more stretching.
For the neck
- Gently look left then right 10 times total
- Gently reach ear to shoulder both sides 10 times total
- Gently move chin to chest and back to neutral 10 times
- Circle head, eyes closed, starting & ending with chin to chest 5 times to the right and 5 times to the left. Slowly raise the head to neutral and open eyes
- Roll shoulders forward and backwards, 5 times each, making exaggerated movements
Gentle back twist
- Sit up very straight and reach left hand across to the outside of right knee
- Look right and pull the right knee using the left hand to feel a gentle stretch in your right low back and rib cage
- You can deepen the stretch by reaching your right arm back and using it on the back of the chair to pull you around a little farther
- Repeat on the right and left sides for 10 times total
Gentle back and hip stretch
- Sit up very straight and place your hands on your knees
- Use your hands to pull you up even straighter as you lower your upper body towards your legs, looking slightly up, pulling your belly as close to your knees as possible
- Roll over knees and reach for toes
- Roll back up articulating through the spine with the head coming up last
- Roll up and down 5 times
Reach for the sky
- Reach your arms strongly to the sky, stretching as high as you can, while looking up at your hands. Touch them together at the top.
- Lower your arms back down slowly, looking down and touching your hands together behind your back with arms as straight as possible (don’t bend your elbows)
- Repeat this at a gentle pace 10 times
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart with relaxed arms
- Look to the left then right, allowing the arms to swing along
- Repeat 10 times total
Hamstring/Hip Flexor Warm Ups
- Stand with feet about shoulder width apart with hands on hips
- Hold your abs in tightly while standing very straight and begin to bend at the waist
- Look straight ahead and bend until you are parallel to the floor
- Stand back up very straight while tightening your glutes, tucking your pelvis under and keep holding your abs in (this will protect your low back)
- Repeat 10 times
Bend and Kick (for flexibility and balance)
- Bend one knee lifting it towards your chest
- While holding the knee up straighten the leg, then bend it back
- You can bring the foot back down to the floor in between each bend and kick or balance on one leg and continuously bend and kick
- Repeat 10 times on each leg
On the Floor:
- Sit with knees bent and feet to the right side
- Hold the feet at the ankle while reaching the left hand overhead looking up at the hand and breathe out
- Put the left hand down on the floor by your hip and reach the right arm up over your head while looking at the hand and bending the left arm slightly
- Repeat 10 times total
- Sit straight up with your legs out in front of you
- Similar to the seated back and hip stretch, reach your belly toward your toes and reach your hands past your toes
- Keep your abs pulled in and do not rest on your legs
- Come back up rolling through the spine and repeat 10 times total
Hip flexor/Hamstring stretch
- Kneel down with one leg stretched out in front of you and hands on the floor
- Point and flex your foot to feel a stretch in your hamstring and calf
- Bend the stretched out leg and dip the opposite hip down so that you are now stretching the hip flexor of the opposite leg
- Straighten the leg and repeat back and forth, hamstring to hip flexor, 10 times total
Sphinx Pose for abdomen stretch
- Lay on your stomach, pulling elbows back so that your hands are next to your shoulders
- Inhale, then on the exhale press your palms and forearms into the floor, looking up and gently stretching your abdomen and flexing your low back
- Tighten your glutes to protect your low back
- Lay back down as you breath in and exhale as you gently stretch up
- Repeat 10 times
Static Stretches for the Entire Body