Squeezing in time for a workout can be challenging, so much so that your warm-up or cool-down may be left out completely. This is not as uncommon as one may think. Unfortunately, many just skip the warm-up or cool-down and never stretch their muscles. Whether running, weight lifting, or your favorite dance aerobics class, giving your muscles the opportunity to stretch before and, especially, after your workout is worth the time.
The benefits to such stretching is that it improves blood flow, increases flexibility, and helps to decrease risk of injury. To gain the benefits of stretching, it is important that your stretching and warm-up be done properly and at the appropriate time. Here are some guidelines to follow.
Before we begin, though, let’s discuss the difference between dynamic stretching and static stretching. Dynamic stretching uses a full range of motion during the stretch, such as wide arm circles. It is designed to include movements that are similar to what your body does during the workout or sporting activity. On the other hand, static stretching does not use a full range motion but rather stretches to a point of tightness or tension, then holds the stretch.
Tip # 1: Avoid Stretching “Cold” Muscles
There is not a clear consensus on whether or not you should engage in a long warm-up session that includes intense stretching. Many professionals simply suggest a light jog or jumping jacks for 3-5 minutes, followed by a light stretch of your more major muscle groups (such as the back, chest, quads and hamstrings).
Dynamic stretching is said to be the best stretching before a workout because you are not stretching “cold” muscles. The continuous, full range motion of these stretches helps warm up your muscles, joints and ligaments which, in turn, will help prevent injury. If you do a light jog or warm-up before stretching, more static moves would likely be acceptable—remember, the goal is to not stretch muscles before they have warmed up.
Static stretching is best performed after your workout, as it gives your body an opportunity to relax and stretch while still warm from the workout. Aim to hold each stretch at least 30 seconds but work up to a couple minutes, if you can. The most important stretching is after your workout. Do not skip this!
Tip # 2: Stay Warm While Stretching
One reason stretching after your workout is so important is because your muscles are warm. Your muscles are the most flexible when warm. This is why you may see athletes wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt following a game or sporting event. Putting on warmer clothes following your workout can help maintain your body heat while you stretch.
Tip # 3: Take Your Time
I will admit that stretching is not one of my favorite ways to spend my time. It is for this reason that I struggle with yoga. Holding a pose for so long is not as easy as it sounds, but it is very important to reap the maximum benefits from stretching. To improve flexibility, you must sit in some not-go-comfortable positions for at least 2 minutes.
Tip #4: Push Your Body
Do not be afraid to push your body during each stretch but, of course, not to the point of pain and certainly not injury. You should be pushing your stretch to more of a “discomfort” level. If you feel nothing during a stretch, you are probably not pushing enough. It may not always be pleasant, but you should feel it when doing a stretch that will be effective. With that said, and again, never push yourself to the point of pain. If the stretch does not feel like, listen to your body and stop.
Tip # 5: Breathe, Breathe and Breathe
During your stretching session, whether before or after your workout, it is important that you are breathing deeply and mindfully. Not only will breathing help replenish your oxygen levels, it will help your body relax and focus on your training.
Tip # 6: No Bouncing!
One of the most important rules of stretching is to not bounce. This is often seen in the static stretching which requires you to hold the movement for a length of time. It is easy to let your leg, for instance, bounce up and down slightly while stretching. This can lead to injury and should be avoided during the stretches.