Stretching Basics

Stretching is not only important to overall fitness and often neglected, but the more you stretch the more flexible you will become. However, stretching requires caution to prevent injury. Somehow, it seems easier to get into the habit of stretching some muscle groups than others. Stretching the long leg muscles after a walk or a run comes naturally and feels good, but people tend to neglect other parts of the body such as the knees. In any case, do not stretch to the point of pain.

There are two basic types of stretches: the ballistic (or active) stretch and the static stretch. The ballistic stretch uses momentum and motion to lengthen the muscle. Examples include a leg swing or an arm swing. Light ballistic stretches are an integral part of the warm-up before your workout. With the static (or passive) stretch, the muscle is lengthened as far as it comfortably will go and is held in that position. You can do a light static stretch during your warm-up and then stretch more aggressively after your cool-down while your muscles are still warm. To increase your flexibility, hold each stretch for 15 to 20 seconds or longer, release, and then repeat. You also can breathe deeply, intensifying the stretch as you exhale. There is a very good physiological reason only to stretch lightly during the warm-up and not to overdo your cool-down stretches. When you begin to stretch a muscle, especially a cold one, the muscle automatically reacts in the opposite way, contracting to resist the stretch. This is called the stretch reflex. To overcome it, it is important to stretch slowly and smoothly without bouncing or jerking. Breathe evenly throughout the stretch and do not hold your breath.

Cool down from your aerobics workout and then begin stretching, striving for five to 10 minutes of static stretches. Stretch each muscle group you worked, holding each stretch for 15 to 20 seconds. After a weight workout, whether with free weights or machines, be sure to stretch all the muscle groups you worked—legs, arms, shoulders, and back. You can boost a static stretch with external pressure in various ways. Sometimes your trainer will apply pressure to a particular muscle to lengthen it. In some stretches, you can turn your own body against the stretch to provide pressure. You also can quickly contract the muscle to be stretched by pressing it against your trainer, your workout partner, or even the wall. When you release that contraction, you will be able to stretch farther than before.

When stretching, it is just as important not to put the joints or the spine at risk for injury as it is to lengthen your muscles. Several common moves could cause problems. The hurdler’s stretch (a favorite among track coaches, a seated stretch with one leg extended straight out and one leg bent and tucked next to the body) and the kneeling quadricep stretch (also called the knee-sit) both could injure the knee joint. The Plow from yoga (lying on your back and stretching both legs up over your head) can pressure the neck vertebrae. Even those relaxing neck circles can be bad for the neck. Circling your head to the back can hyperextend it. You can safely circle your head to the front and sides, however, or tip your head toward your shoulders.