Stretching is not just something that gymnasts have to do for hours each day. It is something we all should do regularly . While many tend to forego stretching in favor of activities that build muscle and endurance, it is an integral part of being fit and strong - let's see why.
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Why it’s great to be well-stretched
Regular and properly done stretching can bring great positive changes into your life. As your range of motion increases, you feel feel more balanced, supple, and in control of your body. When stretching correctly, you breath deeply, and that, according to research, helps relieve stress (more info here). A good stretch improves blood circulation and reduces tightness in the muscles. Besides, by making your tendons and muscles longer and more elastic, you minimize the risk of injury.
Why it’s bad not to stretch
If you don’t commit to a regular stretching routine, your muscles will shorten, up to the point where you won’t be able to bend your knees properly, making it hard to walk. On a lighter note, non-flexible people have a hard time getting to that itch between their shoulderblades! Moreover, if your muscles are not elastic and you must suddenly perform a physical exertion (run or jump, for example), you risk tearing a muscle or a ligament. Plus, without stretching your joints will not be properly lubricated by the so-called synovial fluid, which can result in joint pain.
How to do it right
- Start carefully. There’s a common misconception that stretching is the same as warming up. It is not! A stretch is a part of a warmup, but trying to stretch right from the start, while your body is still cold, can lead to injuries. The term “warming up” should be read literally – the point is to raise your body temperature by 1-2 degrees; for that, start with rotating various joints in your body,followed by several minutes of jogging, jumping, or other light aerobic activity.
- Static first. Once you are warm, proceed to static stretches – that is, stretch a muscle until you feel discomfort (but not pain!) and keep it for 30 seconds. Examples of exercises can be found here.
- Get dynamic. Now it’s time to really stretch and move! Do some controlled arm circles, lunges, and twists; try to achieve your full range of motion. But remember not to overwork your muscles: you aim for elasticity, not fatigue!
- Finish correctly. After your workout, don’t just run to the changing room: a proper cool-down routine is essential! It will prevent the accumulation of lactic acid in your muscles (and thus, soreness the next day) and lower your adrenaline level (more on the importance of cooling down here). Start it with several minutes of gentle activity, such as movements specific to your sport. The proceed to dynamic and static stretches.
Apart from stretching before and after a workout, try to find a few minutes several times a day to do some basic, safe stretches that don’t require warming up. But be careful not to overdo it – if it hurts, it is too much! After a few months, you will be amazed by how your range of motion has improved.