We all get that stretching is important, but how to stretch? And when? What stretches?
An often overlooked but crucial part of your workout is stretching. Unfortunately many people don’t do it correctly and many others simply don’t bother. Even veterans who’ve been exercising for decades.
“Ah, why bother – I’m exercising, isn’t that enough?” some will grumble. Woah, woah, hold your horses folks.
Please stretch – it’s worth it.
Stretching (properly) before and after exercise can take your workouts to the next level. Really. That, combined with good food and rest will have you firing on all cylinders by the time your next session comes around.
A proper stretching warm-up before you start will prepare your body to deal with and respond to the coming exertion. A purposeful warm-up stretch will allow you to optimize your workout while avoiding the risk of injury or strains.
Just as a concentrated stretch immediately after you exercise will strengthen and soothe the muscles you’ve just been using. This has the benefits of relaxing the body and helping prevent tightening and injuries.
So, how to stretch? It’s pretty simple.
There are basically 2 kinds of stretches that you should be doing.
The first is dynamic stretching, which you do before exercise. These are “active” stretches.
The second is static stretching, which you do after exercise. These are the classic “still” stretches.
Our common perception of stretching is usually static stretching – in a still pose, holding a certain position for a set period of time. They definitely have their place, but not before working out. Doing static stretches before exercise can unnecessarily tire the muscles, which we don’t want. It will only lead to poor performance and possible injury.
But hang on, you’ve probably seen really fit-looking types at the gym do static stretches before they exercise. Surely they must know?
Actually, they probably don’t.
It really is that simple. Dynamic before, static after.
Let’s look at what they entail and why to do them.
So-called because they involve energy and movement. Dynamic stretching is movement-based stretching that warms the body up before exercise. They can include any number of movements but they should always be trying to mirror the same movements you’ll be doing in the coming workout.
If you were about to swim, you’d do some arm rotations. Before jogging you could do some heel-to-butt kicks to get the lower body ready.
Just the same in the gym. If you were going to do squats, you’d do some bodyweight squats with some leg swings. If you were focusing on upper body you might incorporate some wide, open-chested claps and arm raises.
The basic rule of thumb is to think about the actions and motions you’ll be about to do and then mimic them – lightly.
Here are some great examples and selections that you might find useful.
These dynamic stretches are actually great for upper and lower body.
As we said, these are the fixed, non-moving stretches that most people associate with stretching. Static stretches are absolutely crucial for maintaining a strong and relaxed body to recover from one workout and be ready for the next.
Just like dynamic stretching, we focus on the muscles used during the workout. So if you’d just finished a 20 kilometre bike ride, there’d be no need for stretching the chest.
There are several stretches to use for each body part. Try them out until you find a few or a special one that really seems to hit the spot.
The key to static stretching is maintaining correct form throughout the stretch while breathing slowly and steadily.
You should be aiming to hold each stretch for between 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the intensity of the workout. The harder you went, the longer the stretch. Try for at least 2 sets of each stretch.
There is a wide range of static stretches to pick and choose from. Here’s a great selection to get you started.
And some more.
Static stretches will allow your body to relax and recover quickly with the added benefit of increased flexibility. Find a quiet place in the gym or wherever you are, focus on steady breathing and feel your muscles whisper, “Thank you”.
And that’s pretty much it. No need to worry about how to stretch, as long as you do it.
Hamish Austin is a freelance writer and qualified group fitness and personal trainer.