The Importance of Stretching

All too often, individuals who are looking to improve the shape they are in are too quick to jump into advanced workouts without properly warming up.

They’re physically capable of lifting weights and performing basic exercise movements, so they think this is all they need to do—and then, they injure themselves doing anything complex, or complain of aches and pains.

Why is this?

Because in their haste to get right into “real” exercise, they neglect a proper warmup.

Little do they realize that a proper warmup can take as little as 10-to-15 minutes of their time, and significantly improve the quality of their workouts. A warmup of stretching important muscle groups and performing any corrective exercises would improve overall mobility and reduce the risk of injury, allowing them to push themselves harder and recover more effectively after each session.

What kinds of stretches should you perform?

Ideally, you should really perform a variety of stretches to loosen up your entire body, even if you don’t plan on working out certain parts of your body.

The reason why this is the case is because issues tend to build from the ground-up. If you have any tightness or problems with muscles or joints in your lower body, then muscles higher up on your body will need to work in order to compensate—and, in turn, this causes muscles still higher up to have to compensate for the muscles below.

The result is, for example, that you can have pain in your back, shoulders, or neck that are actually caused by issues with in your legs that are affecting your balance in some way; because your balance is off, your upper body will need to exert additional work to perform correctly—or, in some cases, the imbalance will cause your muscles to work incorrectly altogether, causing pain or discomfort.

So even if you aren’t actively planning on exercising your lower body in any given workout session, you should always perform some basic stretches to get your lower body muscles warmed up, so as not to disturb the balance of the rest of your body. And, of course, you should always give additional attention to the muscle groups you ARE working out in any given session!

Generally speaking, there’s a few common areas that provide frequent irritation to athletes; most of these are on the back side of the body. These include the calves, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, lower back, shoulders, and neck. Most of these are responsible for providing support to the body is some way or another, and as such, keeping these in good condition is very important.

Stretches can be roughly divided into two categories: static and dynamic. Static stretches involve taking a position, and holding it for a period of time—usually about 20 seconds. Dynamic stretches involve moving part of your body through a certain range, and are usually repeated a few times in order to maximize their effectiveness—perhaps 8 to 10 reps or so.

A complete list of stretches could potentially cover an entire website of its own. So, here’s a well-rounded list of stretches that we highly recommend you perform before any session of exercise. Ask your trainer if you’re not sure how to do them!

  1. Standing calf stretch (against the wall)
  2. Single-legged hamstring stretch/reach
  3. Crossover glute stretch (seated on ground)
  4. “Hollywood” stretch (for lower back)
  5. “Hurdler” stretch (one leg folded in, reach for straight leg)
  6. Single-leg quad stretch (from Hurdler stretch, lying on side)
  7. Supine crossover stretch (for lower back)
  8. Cat/dog stretch (for mid back)
  9. Neck/shoulder stretch

For suggestions on additional stretches to supplement specific workout routines, ask your trainer.

What is a “corrective exercise”? What kind of corrective exercises should you perform?

A “corrective exercise” has the same basic goal as a stretch—to loosen up a tight or problematic muscle group to improve its mobility.

However, whereas a stretch is intended to help prevent issues with joints and muscle groups, a corrective exercise is used when a specific joint or muscle group already has an issue of some kind that is affecting performance. A corrective exercise may also not involve much actual “stretching”, although a number of them do. Unlike many resistance or cardio training exercises, corrective exercises usually do not require much equipment to perform, and can usually be done from home.
For example, let’s say we have a runner with chronically tight calf muscles. As mentioned above, tight calf muscles can affect your overall balance; this imbalance can lead to pain in the knees and lower back, as well as “shin splints”, which are sharp pains in the front of the lower leg that commonly afflict runners or people who perform high-impact cardio exercises.

Simple stretching might not loosen up the calf muscles enough to alleviate the issue. A corrective exercise which can increase the range of motion of the calf muscles, and loosen them up more thoroughly, will help remedy the other pains resulting from the over-tight calf muscles.

Corrective exercises, as a subject, are a little bit more complex than stretches, since most exercises are used to try to resolve a specific, preexisting issue—unless you have a good understanding of any mobility issues you may have, trying to perform corrective exercises may not be an effective use of your time.

Speak with your trainer if you think you have mobility issues that are holding you back; your trainer should be able to diagnose your issue(s) and recommend appropriate corrective exercises for you to perform.

Myofascial release and you

Sometimes, tense areas of the body can be difficult to stretch out normally—areas such as the gluteal muscles or iliotibial band (“IT band”).

One option is myofascial release, which is applying physical pressure to a tense muscle group in order to loosen up stiffness and break up any scar-tissue that may be present.

This is sort of like a massage, and can in fact be done by hand by a properly trained masseuse or chiropractor. However, there are also options available for self-performed myofascial release. Applying pressure to the afflicted area using a round, firm object—like a foam roller or hard sports ball—can have the desired effect of breaking up tension or scar-tissue.

Oftentimes, significant pressure will be necessary to achieve any result—rest the afflicted part of your body on the ball or roller (or similar object of choice), adjust your balance so that your weight is being supported by the object, and then roll back and forth on the object so that it can dig deeply into the afflicted muscle group.

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