When Exercising, Don't Skip Stretching

It's no stretch to say that a lot of us underestimate the value of flexibility.

While it's true that stretching won't strengthen your heart or flatten your stomach, it can help you reach those goals more efficiently. Aerobic exercise and strength training need muscles that are in balance and work smoothly. That's where stretching comes in -- as a complement to the activity you choose. It's so important the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) includes flexibility training in its recommendations for staying fit.

Exercise, and other factors, can cause your muscles to shorten. By regularly stretching the muscles, you counteract that shortening. Stretching promotes flexibility, allowing you to move your muscles and joints through their full range of motion. 

Muscles that are warmed up before being put under a sudden stress are more likely to be able to handle the stress. Mild warm-up exercises before vigorous exertion is always recommended. 

Stretching before exercise may help to decrease injury to your muscles, ligaments and tendons. Although there is disagreement as to whether stretching before exercising is preferable to stretching after exercise, the overall benefits of flexibility are not disputed.

Stretching can help keep the body limber by releasing muscle tension and tightness. A tight muscle is not able to function like it should. 

Stretching with poor technique can make a stretch less effective, and it can even can cause injury, especially to vulnerable body parts like the lower back and knee. Consulting a qualified instructor is probably the best way to learn technique. But a yoga class, videotape, or book can suffice.

Once you educate yourself about stretching you'll find that it's an important part of your overall wellness.

How to get the most from your stretching

  • Do five to 10 minutes of walking or light jogging to warm up before you start exercising and stretching. Do not try to stretch muscles when they are "cold."

  • Stretch at least two to three times a week. If you work out two to three times a week, just make it part of your workout routine.

  • Stretch all major muscle groups, especially those your activity involves. For running or other leg-centered exercise, that means the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Stretch the shoulders, chest, and back before activities working the upper body.

  • Stretch each muscle group individually using slow, gentle movements. Breathe while you stretch, exhaling as you move into the stretch. Hold the position no more than 20 to 30 seconds. Three to five repetitions is recommended.

  • Don't try to balance and stretch at the same time. Holding onto a chair or wall for standing stretches provides more stability.

  • Don't bounce while you stretch or make sudden movements. Back off if you experience pain. Stretching should not take a joint past its normal range of motion. Stretching the wrong way can harm muscles by creating small tears that may become bigger when you exercise.

Three good stretches

Quadriceps: Stand with knees together. Pull your left leg up behind you with your left hand; keep your torso upright and pull your heel toward your buttocks. Brace yourself with your right hand. Switch legs and repeat.

Hamstrings: Sit on the floor; extend your left leg in front of you. Put your right foot against your inner left thigh. Gently bend forward from the hips, keeping back straight. Switch legs and repeat.

Chest: Stand facing a wall. Put your right palm and forearm flat against the wall, then rotate your torso to the left. Switch sides and repeat.