Lately, stretching has been on my mind. The more I think about the benefits of stretching, the more I'm convinced that we all need to introduce regular stretching into our lifestyles, not just into our formal exercise routines.
Lifestyle stretching means you stretch to feel good - when you wake up in the morning just before you get out of bed, after a tense phone call when you realize you've been so involved that your whole body has become tight, or when you've been sitting at a keyboard for more than 30 minutes and your body is starting to seize into position.
The problem with this informal stretching is that it will make you feel great, but it won't do much to regain the ability to move that you've been gradually losing since you reached puberty all those years ago.
Your body is a bit like a rubber band that slowly loses its elasticity as it gets older. Unless you do some stretching for flexibility, you'll gradually lose your elasticity, degenerate, and eventually start breaking.
You can restore some of that lost flexibility by correctly stretching the muscles of your body. If you stretch correctly you will start to replace some of that tough old fibrin and collagen connective tissue with new elastin connective tissue.
A stretched and flexible body will be more youthful in appearance and action. Start with this simple routine.
When to stretch. The only time you should stretch for flexibility is when your muscles are warmed up (and will easily stretch without snapping) and fatigued (so they won't be threatened by, and resist the extra range of movement).
The tail end, or recovery phase, of an exercise session is the best time to put a stretching routine that targets flexibility. If you could get into the habit of regular stretching after every activity session you'd soon regain an ability to move freely without pain, injury, or internal resistance.
Why stretch. Keep firmly in your mind that you'll be stretching for flexibility, not for other reasons. This goal of increasing the range of movement of muscles and their joints means you have to follow a particular set of rules, or it just won't work.
How to stretch. Follow these general rules:
Stretching. Let's start with a simple stretch for the muscles across the front of your chest (pectorals), shoulders (anterior deltoids), and arms (biceps). You'll need to line up an assistant, and warm up. Grab a friend and head out for an easy five minute walk around the block.
When you get back, stand upright in front of your partner, hands by your side with your palms facing forwards. Slowly raise your hands back behind while you also try and get the back of your hands to move together - keep raising your arms and moving them together behind your body until you feel some resistance in your muscles.
Get your partner to hold your hands so your arms are supported and held in this position. Take a deep breath and relax your whole body. Stay in this position for 30 seconds, and then ask your partner to let go of your arms, and slowly lower them back to your sides.
Feel nice? This style of stretch is the simplest form of stretching for flexibility, and is called stretch/relax stretching, because that's what you do - go into an easy stretch and then ensure your body is relaxed.
If you feel any muscle fibrillation (where the muscle starts shaking), numbness, or pain, then you're trying too hard. Ease up on the stretch or you'll end up with a muscle that's going to tighten up, not get longer and looser.
Conclusion: Remember this stretching is all about relaxing, not straining. Relax, relax, relax while you stretch. Finish off by rewarding your helper by giving them a stretch.