Stretching Madness: Part 2
Ok, so when we left off last time I talked about the differences between stretching styles and who should be stretching. Now I’ll get into the more practical stuff and tell you what to do with your stretching program.
First of all, like with your exercise program, or anything in life for that matter, you should have a purpose for your flexibility program. Are you stretching to improve flexibility? If so for what? If you’re a gymnast then extreme amounts of flexibility are required. So lots of static stretching will be the prescription. Of all the things static stretching purportedly won’t do (like help with your running or workout performance) it will make you more flexible when done consistently.
If you’re an athlete, you need ample amounts of flexibility, so you can be a little more injury proof in your sport. It may not prevent a sprained ankle, but it may help prevent repetitive strain injuries. Which are often the causes of common aches and pains like plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome and knee pain. Most of us however don’t need extreme flexibility. We just need enough to do things like squatting, bending, twisting and reaching, with relative ease and without pain. Doing some regular stretching, focusing on the areas where you feel need the most work, should do the trick.
How should you stretch?
It really depends on the activities you’re planning to do. If you’re using it as a warm up, then you should be focusing on taking your limbs and trunk through controlled ranges of motion. You’re not trying to increase your flexibility here. The purpose here is to ramp up your nervous system, elevate your heart rate, get circulation pumping to your limbs and lubricate the joints. Dynamic stretching is best. Start slow and get progressively quicker with each rep, but make sure to always be under control. No wild, jerky movements please. Aside from it looking silly, you’ll also risk getting hurt. And nobody wants to live with the shame of admitting they got hurt during a warm up.
If you’re stretching after a workout, or pretty much anytime that’s not preceding sport or exercise, you’ll want to take it nice and slow. The purpose of stretching now should be more about restoring muscle balance, easing muscle tension, and calming the nervous system down. No need to take a long time doing this either. You don’t have to carve out an hour of your day, or hold a stretch so long you fall asleep. You can make some significant progress doing about 10 minutes of focused flexibility work.
Taking about 5-10 seconds, or 1-3 slow, deep breaths, during each stretch position is perfect. As with a lot of things, consistency is key, and will deliver the very best benefits. It’s way better to do 10 minutes of this kind of stretching every day, rather than a much longer session randomly.
Here are some awesome restorative stretches that you can do at any time. They target the areas that people tend to be the most restricted in: the hips. I do these a lot myself, and every client that I’ve shown them to has absolutely loved them. Some have even said they’ve helped with their back pain.
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I mentioned in part one there’s one thing that you’re probably not doing during your stretching, that can make all the difference in the world. And that one thing is timing your breath with the movement. Seriously, this is so simple, yet makes such a big impact on your body’s response to the stretching. Most people aren’t doing it however. But I promise if you start focusing on your breathing while stretching, you’ll be able to spend a lot less time stretching, while gaining way more benefits. What you may not know is that your breathing can directly affect your nervous system. Try taking 5 really slow, deep breaths. I’m talking about diaphragmatic breaths, all the way down in to your belly. Take about 3 seconds on the inhale, and 5 seconds on the exhale. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. If you’re breathing right, you should feel your tummy expand before your chest.
What happened after your 5 deep breaths? Do you feel a bit more relaxed? If so that’s because slow breathing emphasizes the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your rest and digest system. Because this nervous system response is very involved when you’re relaxing or digesting food. Breathing this way can actually signal your brain and body to become more relaxed. And the effects are almost immediate. This can lower muscle tone (a good thing when you’re doing restorative stretching), and even leave you feeling more calm. Pretty cool, right?
So how can you use this during your stretching? Well if you’re doing those restorative stretches, always INHALE nice and deep down into your belly right BEFORE you move into a stretch. Then EXHALE and move slowly INTO the stretch. Hold the stretch for a couple seconds, then inhale again as you move out of the stretch slowly. Depending on how tight you feel in a specific area, you may want to do 3-5 repetitions like this until you start to feel the area loosen up a bit.
So you’re timing your breath with your stretching now. Excellent. Now here’s a cool little trick that you can do to instantly improve your range of motion during a hip flexor stretch. And it uses your eyes.
Get into the hip flexor stretch position where you’re down on one knee. Lean into it and check your range of motion (remember to breathe). Now, without moving your head, shift your eyes up and keep them there. Check the range of motion again by leaning forward into the stretch. Did you get deeper this time? Did it feel a lot easier too? That’s because you just used a neurological reflex that’s built into your nervous system to inhibit those hip flexor muscles.
Go ahead, impress your friends at the gym next time by showing them that one.
I’ll leave you with four principles of flexibility that will really improve your stretching program, and the gains you’ll get from it. I’ve borrowed these from Ann and Chris Frederick’s (Stretch to Win Institute) Ten Principles for Stretching Success. Pick up their book Stretch to Win for the complete list.
4 Principles of Stretching
- Time your breathing
Inhale before you move into a stretch. Exhale as you move into a stretch.
- Sync to activity
Move fast, but controlled, if you’re warming up. Slow it down for post workout or restorative.
- Never stretch to the point of pain
A mistake people always make. Ann and Chris Frederick talk about “pain without gain” when it comes to stretching. If it hurts, you’re going too far. Trust me.
- Stretch in multiple planes of motion
We move in multiple planes of motion every day, your stretching should reflect real life. Play around with the angles and spend more time where you need it.