Stretching: Is It Even Necessary?

Whenever we talk about fitness, we think mainly about strength and endurance and tend to forget about the third component: flexibility!  Let’s face it - it’s hard enough to make time for our cardio and strength sessions… who wants to stretch?  It’s just easier to skip out a couple of minutes earlier or to avoid the line to return equipment at the end of your group exercise class by leaving before the end-of-class stretch. 

So WHY should we stretch? 

Imagine your body as a tent held upright by 1,000 stakes.  If you pull on one stake, the tent will lean to the side.  Our body works the same way.  Our muscles attach to tendons, which in turn attach to our bones and joints.  If there is a tightness in a muscle, it will tug on the tendon and joint and pull it out of alignment, if ever so slightly.  And next thing you know, the knee or shoulder hurts. Or imagine that you trip over something and have to take a quick long step to catch your balance.  A tight hamstring or calf muscle will get injured a lot easier than one of normal length.

Some muscles have more of a tendency to get tight than others, including: neck, pectoral, lower back, hip flexors, hamstrings and calf muscles.  Stretch those muscles after they’re warmed up. Hold stretches for 30-60 seconds, or alternatively, move slowly through a series of dynamic mobility movements (avoid ballistic or bouncing stretches).  Foam rollers are great to roll out tight muscles (ask a trainer or group exercise instructor to show you how).  Better yet, find a yoga class on your Y’s free group exercise schedule and have our certified instructors take you through a series of movement designed to stretch, strengthen and improve balance.

A couple of easy stretches can prevent or counteract muscular imbalances, improve posture, increase athletic performance and decrease the risk of getting injured.  Here are a couple of easy suggestions to get you started:

  • To stretch the neck muscles: reach down with one hand and drop your head towards the opposite shoulder.
  • Perform a “door stretch” to release tight pectoral muscles:  place your hand at shoulder height or slightly higher into the frame of a door.  Now step forward with the same side foot and rotate your shoulder until you feel the beginning of a stretch.
  • To stretch a tight lower back: come down on all fours and round up your back into a “cat stretch.”
  • For those tight hip flexors, stand on one foot and bend your other knee back, reach for the back foot and hold.
  • Hamstring tightness: by sitting on a chair with one leg bent, one leg straight.  Now lean forward towards the straight leg, keeping the back straight.
  • To stretch tight calves:  stand with one foot forward, one foot back and bend the front knee, keeping the back heel down until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg.

Do those stretches a couple of times a day, preferably after your muscles are thoroughly warmed.
Your body will thank you!

Written by: Stefanie McLaughlin, Health & Wellness Director, East Belleville YMCA

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