Besides stretching increasing flexibility, stretching improves blood circulation which provides more nourishment to your muscles, it improves coordination and balance, and it's good for your heart too! Flexible folks decrease their chance of heart disease by improving artery function.
Try this: If you can touch your toes while you stand up with your feet together, that is a very good sign that the major arteries in your body are pliable and pliable arteries are a key factor in keeping your blood pressure where it should be. (Dr Oz) If you can not touch your toes, start doing forward bends every morning; try them with your feet together and also with your feet shoulder width apart. Stay in the downward position, reaching your hands to the ground for about 45 seconds at a time, and don't forget to breath! If you can already touch the ground, good for you, but you still need to stretch.
Oh yes, and besides the many health benefits.. Stretching also increases performance and decreases the risk of injury, strains and sprains during activity.
Flexibility for me has become a secret weapon. Physically I have noticed longer and leaner muscles and stretching really releases a lot of tension in my problem/tension areas. I carry the world on my neck and shoulders and the only way to access those deep, internal knots is through intense/concentrated stretching.
A little goes a long way, and the beauty about stretching is you really can do it anywhere.
There is an art to stretching, so here are some tips:
A common misconception is that stretching is a warm-up. Well it's not. Stretching is its very own thing and requires just as much attention and focus as lifting weights or running 5k's.
In my yoga practice and stretching routines, I start with sun salutations and vinyassas which is a sequence of plank, chaturanga, up-dog or cobra, into downward dog and then repeat. These sequences warm me up enough to not only perform advanced yoga poses, they also prepare my body for my stretching routines if I am not already warmed up from a work out.
If you are interested, here is a pretty good video on how to do that sequence.
For those of you who aren't into yoga (and have half a brain? haha) you can warm up with low intensity activities for about 5-10 mins: walking, jogging, bike rides and jumping jacks are all good options.
Another misconception about stretching is you should do it before an intense work out. Not true. You should WARM UP before an intense workout enough to increase range of motion, and STRETCH after the work out. Here's a good article on why.
So that means if you are adding stretching to your workout routine, you should warm up first, work out, then stretch. Obviously if you haven't stretched a day in your life, then you should probably take it easy when you get started with any physical exercise, and I guess before I continue with this post I should mention that if you are not in healthy condition, you should check with your doctor before starting workout regimes. duh.
Focus on specific muscle groups
When I stretch I usually start with my neck, then I move to my shoulders and laterals (core & back), then I work on my spine, arms and then onto my legs and glutes. Neck, legs and glutes get the most TLC because they are typically my tightest areas. I have a 20 and 60 minute stretching routine, both routines cover every muscle group, but obviously the 60 minute routine is more extensive. I usually do the 20 minute routine after work outs, and the 60 minute routine about once a week instead of yoga or on "moon days."
If I went for a run or lifted weights, I make sure that the muscle groups that got worked the hardest get the most attention during my stretching. After runs I focus on legs and after kayaking I focus on my neck and shoulders. Know which groups are getting used the most during sport activities and work outs, tailor your stretching around those muscles.
You have to remember that your muscle system is a connected structure. Tension in your neck and shoulders often times comes from your lower back, lower back pain can come from a weak core, and tight shoulders can be a result of under stretched triceps and biceps-- its all connected, so stretch every group every time.
Don't hurt yourself
There is a huge difference between stretching through tension and hurting yourself. If you feel sharp pains ease up a bit, it will not take you long to stretch further, but you need to give your body time to change. Be kind to your body. Hold stretches in a place where the tension is tolerable for 30-45 seconds.
I know if you bounce you might be able to touch the floor briefly, but don't do it.
Bouncing is a great way to pull a muscle. There are some stretches where "gentle rocking" is okay, but I usually only think this is okay in a "forward bend" with your legs shoulder width apart-- however, if you are going to "rock" in this position, you need to make sure it is a very gentle rock and that you are mindful to your hips and spine.
The more you stretch the more likely it is that you will benefit from its healing powers! Yes! Healing!
Muscle tension only exacerbates stress and anxiety. If your muscles are tense and lack flexibility, there is a good chance your body is not functioning optimally. Just like your muscles, your body is an interconnected system and the improvements in one system (muscles and joints) become a catalyst for improvements in other systems (cardiovascular & blood circulation).
My stretching routine consists of Sun Salutations & Vinyassas, head rolls, chest expand, cat pose, forward bends & triangles, triceps and biceps, arm circles, scissor hamstring stretch & triangles, quad stretch, ankle rolls, wrists and forearms.
So now that you have some of the basics under your belt, NEXT week I'll show you ten of my favorite stretches, how they benefit me, and how to make sure you are doing them correctly.