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We always hear: Stretch when you exercise. Why is stretching so important?
Stretching has many benefits from reduced muscle tension, improved circulation, reduced anxiety, stress, and fatigue, improved muscle coordination, improved physical performance, and enjoyment of physical activities. But:
Perhaps the most important benefits of stretching exercise are improved flexibility and decreased risk of injury.
How Does Stretching Exercise Help
Stretching exercise can improve your joints movement through an increased full range of motion. It enables muscles to work better, improves performance, and decreases your risk of injury.
the tightness of hip flexors has been associated with balance dysfunction as well as an increased risk of knee, hamstring and lower extremity injuries.
Tightness may result in early muscle fatigue as well as altered movement patterns. This is something that can happen in all age groups and can present symptomatically or be asymptomatic in some individuals.
Stretching is often thought to lengthen shortened tight muscles, but actually, the benefit to stretching may be the body’s improved ability to withstand more stretching force.
According to the Mayo Clinic, it is important to stretch correctly. Tips to benefit from stretching:
- Before stretching cold muscles, it is important to perform a light warm-up using the muscle groups that will be exercised, such as a short walk before running. For some activities such as sprinting, it is best to leave stretching until after the activity, when muscles are warm.
- When stretching it is important to stretch both sides of your body equally.
- You also want to focus on the major muscle groups that you will or have used, such as the legs, back, neck, etc.
- Slow, fluid movements work best for stretching. It’s also important not to bounce. While doing any sort of stretch it’s tempting to bounce in an attempt to deepen the stretch, this can actually end up cause injury or muscle tightness. Hold the stretch for as long as you can, 10 up to 30 seconds is ideal.
- Stretch until you feel pull or tension in your muscle, but not to the point of pain.
- Always remember to breath. Take a deep breath before you start your stretch and then exhale into your stretch. Keep breathing through the stretch.
- Consistency is important with stretching so you don’t lose the flexibility you’ve gained. Once you start, plan to stretch regularly at least 2-3 times per week, ideally more often.
Finally, if you have a muscle or joint injury, you should stretch cautiously and gently. If unsure you should consult the medical professional treating your injury.
Simple Stretching Exercises Keep You Flexible
When stretching you can focus on the muscle groups that you will be using the most, or for more of a lifestyle change, you can stretch all the major muscle groups.
The following are general stretching exercises that target the major muscle groups of the body.
You might also enjoy stretching to a DVD. A Beginner Yoga DVD is a good place to start.
A stretch band such as the resistance bands may be a good tool to use during your stretching routine. It will allow you to perform unassisted stretches with greater control.
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Starting at Your Upper Body
Some of the major muscle groups of your upper back are rhomboid, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi. Simple exercises start with your Neck and involve the movement of your head.
Neck Flexion & Extension
Sit or stand with hands at your sides. Gently tilt your head forward until you feel a pulling or tension, and then tilt your head back and look at the ceiling. Repeat 2-3 times.
Head Side Bends
Sit or stand with hands at your sides. Tilt your head to the right side, with your right ear moving in the direction of your right shoulder. Hold the stretch for 5 seconds once you feel a pulling or tension. Gently straighten your head and repeat for the left side. Repeat 2-3 times for each side.
Stand or sit with your feet parallel. Pull your left arm across your chest. Push your left elbow close to your chest with your right hand until you feel a pulling or tension. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch arms. Repeat 2-3 times on each arm.
Behind the Back Stretch
Stand up and place your left hand in the small of your back. Grab your left hand with your right and pull it towards the right until you feel a pull or tension. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch arms. Repeat 2-3 times on each arm.
Stand with feet parallel facing away from a wall or door frame. Place both arms directly behind you. Push against the surface until you feel a stretch in your chest. Repeat 2-3 times.
Stand with feet parallel. Reach arms behind your back and interlock fingers. Raise arms toward the ceiling, away from your body until you feel a pull or tension. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Raise your left arm over your head and drop your hand behind your neck. Take your right hand and pull your left elbow to the right and lean to the right. Hold for 5 seconds. Next stretch the right arm. Repeat 2-3 times.
Upper Back or Latissimus dorsi Stretch
Kneeling and bend the trunk forward until you feel a stretch. Slide hands are flat above your head and push buttocks backward. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Lower Back Stretch
Stand with your feet parallel. Place your hands on the small of your back, slightly bend back until you feel a stretch. Rest. Repeat 2-3 times.
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Stand with your feet parallel. Raise both arms over your head and behind until you feel a stretch in your abdomen. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Stand with your feet parallel. Both arms straight above your head. Clasp hands together. Lean to one side. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat 2-3 times.
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Moving to Your Lower Body
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Hip Abductor or Inner Thigh Stretch
Sit on the floor with feet together in a butterfly. Keep back straight and gently push knees to the floor with your hands until a pull or stretch is felt. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Hip Abductor Stretch
While you are sitting on the floor, stretch your legs flat. Cross your right leg over your left leg. Turn and look over your right shoulder while pushing on your right knee with your left elbow. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat 2-3 times.
In a lunge position with one leg bent and the other leg pushed behind. Drop back knee to the floor, slowly lean and push forward with hips until a stretch is felt in the front of your hip. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat 2-3 times.
Lie on your back. Raise knees. Pull right foot above the left knee like you are crossing your legs. Slowly left the left leg toward the chest until you feel a pull or stretch. Keep arms and lower back flat on the floor. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
Stand where you can hold to the back of a chair or wall for support. Pull heel of the right foot toward the buttocks with your right hand until a stretch is felt in the front of the thigh. Keep leg close to the body with the knee pointing to the floor. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
While sitting, stretch your right leg in front of you with the knee slightly bent. Pull the left foot toward your body. Bend at the waist toward your right foot. Hold your lower leg for support. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
While lying flat on back with knees bent. Slowly bring the left knee toward your chest. Gently extend right leg with knee slightly bent. Hold for 5 seconds when you feel a comfortable stretch. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
With the right leg straight in front of you, bend the left knee. Lean forward placing hands on the bent leg. Focus on keeping your back straight. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch Legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
Upper Calf Stretch
Stand a comfortable distance from a wall. Place hands against the wall. Keep the right leg straight. Lean forward toward the wall and bend left knee. Keep both heels on the floor and slowly lean forward until a stretch is felt in the back of the upper calf muscle of the right leg. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
Lower Calf Stretch
This can be done in conjunction with the upper calf stretch but it targets the lower calf muscle. With feet in the same position and leaning against a wall, bend the knees of both legs. Hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times.
Plantar Fasciitis Stretches
A common cause of heel pain is called Plantar Fasciitis. The plantar fascia is the tough fibrous band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the base of the toes. Heel pain is caused by localized degeneration of the fascia.
Common in all foot types and in people who walk or stand on hard surfaces and those who are overweight. Heel pain may worsen over the course of the day.
When pain continues over a week and doesn't respond to rest and icing, its time to see a podiatrist or an orthopedic foot and ankle specialist to determine the cause of the heel pain and rule out other conditions.
Once diagnosed, stretching is often considered to be the best therapy to relieve the painful symptoms of plantar fasciitis without damaging the fascia tissue.
Stretching treatment focuses on loosening the calf muscle, Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia itself. For more on my experience with heel pain check out my post 3 Steps to Improve Heel Pain.
Best if performed prior to getting out of bed. Sit with let out in front of you. Put a towel around your foot and pull foot toward you. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
Sit with involved foot crossed over the other leg. Grasp toes with one hand and bend the toes and ankle upwards toward knee as far as possible to stretch the arch and calf muscle. With the other hand, perform deep massage along the arch of your foot. Hold 10 seconds. Repeat for 2-3 times.
When caused by over-pronation or the rolling in of the foot due to excessive weight, tight calf muscles, increasing activity or wearing flat, unsupportive footwear or among other factors, wearing orthotics or shoes with arch supports can help ease the symptoms of plantar fasciitis.
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Stretching Exercise Tips to Remember
- Remember to warm up prior to stretching to get your muscles ready to stretch.
- Take a deep breath before the stretch starts and then slowly breath out as you stretch.
- Use slow and fluid movements.
- Stretch to your ability, not to pain. Keep gentle tension during the stretch. Any pain, lessen or stop the stretch.
- Work your way up from a 5-second stretch, up to 20-30 seconds.
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