How often do we blow off our stretches after an activity? After all, we have done the work, it’s over, and we want to move on. Or, we do a few stretches as a warm-up, thinking that is enough.
The thing is, stretching is just as important as the activity or workout that you do. In fact, it should be considered part of the activity or workout. One way to make the switch is to automatically figure in the time it is going to take to stretch and add that into your plans.
Just to refresh your focus on this, let’s take a look at why stretching is such a great thing to do.
There are the benefits that you hear a lot, like reducing injury, maintaining flexibility, release of muscle tension from chronic postures, recovery from a workout, or getting into a more relaxed mode.
But there are some other, sometimes unsung, benefits to stretching. Becoming aware of these may help you get more “gung-ho” when it comes to stretching.
First of all, muscles actually slide past each other when they move us. (Unless of course it is an isometric event, which doesn’t involve motion, just muscle contraction.) If muscles can’t slide because they are tight or have “knots”, motion is restricted, and often pain ensues. Stretching keeps muscles at their best length, which facilitates sliding.
Second, many of us think of doing core work when it comes to improving posture. After all, if your core doesn’t hold you up, you slouch. Yes, core work is a great idea. Not just for posture, but to support most of the movements we do. It turns out that stretching is not just for “getting out the kinks.” Stretching is great for helping you maintain good posture as well, because it encourages optimal alignment.
For example, if you have chronic tension in your neck and shoulders, you will not be able to stand up straight. When you can’t stand up straight, every move you make is compromised, and your body will have to compensate all over the place. One compensation leads to another, and another, and so on. Muscle compensations put stress on your joints, on each other, and on your nervous system. You may not feel it in the beginning, but over the long haul, it can become all too apparent.
Last but not least, there is aging (sorry). As we get older our connective tissues get thicker, less viscous, and more prone to injury. How many people have you known that try to do something they used to do, like dunk a basketball, only to rip an Achilles tendon? As we get older, we just don’t have the range of motion and quick flexibility that we used to.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up (sorry again)! It means that stretching becomes even more important! With thickening going on, our connective tissues need to be reminded often to stay as long as possible. We want to encourage our connective tissues not to bunch up into the dreaded “knots” that can become painful.
The Deluxe Approach
People really serious about all this will use a foam roller or a tennis ball to work out the knots before stretching. This gives you the best shot at keeping muscles in balance, and getting rid of some painful areas that may be stopping you from doing certain things.
Note: Sometimes you may not even feel the knot until you use a foam roller, tennis ball, or get a message. Unfortunately, it is there nonetheless and may be causing stiffness or tension in you that can actually inhibit muscle activity. Then, without realizing it, you may end up avoiding activities because you “just don’t feel like it.”
What to do?
By now you may be thinking that this is sounding too involved. It is going to take too long to do all of that? Fair enough. But let’s not throw everything out because it seems like too much of a project.
Yes, there are many, many, stretches that can be done, and many iterations using a foam roller or tennis ball, or a partner or therapist.
I would like to leave you with some thoughts (and a few stretches) that may make it easier for you.
- Make this year the year of the stretch. Elevate it to a necessity! Start with a few full-body stretches (see below), then learn some more, and add them in. Stay open to learning a few ways to use a foam roller or tennis ball.
- You can streamline your stretching program by figuring out what are your tightest, most vulnerable areas, and concentrate on them. Be brave about this! Many people will only stretch the places that are already flexible or pain free. Do the opposite! Work on the places that are tight or achy on a regular basis. But still take note: Do NOT stretch past the point of pain. This is where it gets counterproductive.
- I have a resource for you if you want to dive in to this a little more. It is a book called Prescriptive Stretching, by Kristian Berg. Available on Amazon for $18.99. This is a very user-friendly but comprehensive guide giving tips on how to discover your areas of tightness, and what to do about them.
- And remember, stretching is to be done after your muscles and tissues are warmed up from an activity or workout. Otherwise, the stretch will not be as effective because your tissues are less pliable when cold.
Here’s two full body stretches that can hit a lot of areas at once! If you are just getting started, or are pressed for time, you can put these to good use.
The “L” Stretch
Stand near a kitchen counter (or use the back of a chair), grab the edge, and then get yourself into an “L” position by lengthening the back of your legs, extending your spine, and lengthening your arms. Do not round your back or look down at the floor. Keep your spine neutral, and activate your abs to support the neutral spine. Stay in this position for 8-10 slow breaths before releasing from the stretch.
The Full-Body Stretch
Lay flat on an exercise mat or carpet, face up. Extend your arms over head. Activate your abs to help keep your spine neutral, reach both arms above you as much as you can. Meanwhile, point your toes and stretch your legs in the opposite direction. Stay in this stretch for 8-10 slow breaths and then release.
It’s a new year, and you may have several ideas for branching out and trying some new things this year. Consider throwing a regular stretching program into the mix. You won’t regret it.
Best for a healthy New Year,
© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.