Keeping your joints and muscles flexible is vital to achieving a healthy lifestyle. However, improper stretching can actually cause your physical fitness to regress. Learn how to stretch the right way to keep your body limber.
A Brief Rundown of Muscular Physiology
Your body’s muscles have a quality known as elasticity, meaning they can expand and contract without tearing. This is due to their physiology.
At the smallest level, muscles are made up of tiny, overlapping fibers called myofilaments, which make up bands called sarcomeres. When stretched, the myofilaments don’t overlap as much, allowing your muscles to lengthen. Increased overlap of myofilaments causes muscular contraction.
The Rubber Band Analogy
The easiest way to illustrate how important it is to know how to stretch is by using the example of a rubber band.
Imagine, for some odd reason, you placed a rubber band in the freezer for a few hours. When you take it out, and try to stretch it, it will snap. A warm rubber band, however, will retain its shape and bend with ease.
When you first wake up, or spend all day sitting at a desk or on the couch, your muscles are almost entirely unused—basically like they’re frozen. So yes, before stretching, you need to warm up your muscles.
How to Stretch before and after a Workout
To be clear, stretching is not warming up! It may be part of your warmup routine before you begin a more vigorous workout, but it is not a full warmup in and of itself.
Elements of Rockville Centre recommends that you break your workouts into three parts: a general warmup, a stretching routine and a sport-specific activity, which can be anything from running to yoga to weightlifting.
Warming Up the Muscles
A general warmup begins with joint rotations, which should begin either at your toes and working up, or from your fingers down. Perform slow, circular movements with each joint until they feel like they’re moving smoothly. This gets your joints lubricated and ready for physical activity.
Next, it’s time for a bit of light aerobic activity. Jog, jump rope, ride the elliptical or do another cardio-focused exercise for at least five minutes. This will raise your body temperature and get your blood flowing.
Right after you’ve warmed up your body, you can start stretching.
Start slow, with some static stretches, beginning with your back, followed by your upper body, then your lower body.
Then, do some light dynamic stretches, expanding your muscles to the point of slight discomfort, but not fatigue.
Whatever workout you do, you should end it with a cool-down, which involves more static stretching. This will reduce cramping, tightness and soreness in your fatigued muscles, making your recovery process much more comfortable. Also, a post-workout massage never hurt anyone (quite the opposite, actually).
Now that you know how to stretch properly, you can give your body the care it deserves. And for those days that you only have a short amount of time to exercise, remember that warming up beats injuries by a longshot, even if it cuts into the rest of your workout time.