Truth talk here: despite my background in personal training, I sometimes “forget” to stretch. And I think it’s safe to say I’m not the only one who doesn’t always stretch before and after working out. It’s often an overlooked health-related part of fitness. Reality check here: stretching is arguably one of the most IMPORTANT things we can be doing for ourselves and for our bodies!
Ever notice that when you’re feeling stressed that the rest of your body feels the effects of it, too? Fatigue. Tension in your muscles. Anxiety. Racing thoughts. A general feeling of “blah.” Like I always say: the mind and body connection is HUGE. What we’re feeling emotionally tends to impact us physically (and vise versa). Stretching consistently helps to reduce mental tension and stress. When using mindful breathing in combination, feelings of anxiety and depression may also decrease.
Range of motion
If you’re into weight lifting as much as I am, you may have noticed that your body’s range of motion is… less than ideal. The main way I move my body is by throwing weights around; which means my muscles and joints have gotten very familiar with very stiff movements. Stretching can help to enhance unrestricted movement of your major joints (especially the hips and shoulders). This means your joints can move more freely and efficiently in all directions.
The other bonus? Reduced stiffness, pain levels, and fewer muscle cramps.
Stretching regularly is not ONLY for flexibility and mobility improvement. There are improvements goin’ on internally, too. Specifically mind-body work, like yoga, can help to decrease blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. Your body’s physiological response to stress becomes more effective through consistent stretch work.
Blood flow and circulation can also be improved with consistent stretching; AKA oxygen transport throughout the body is enhanced.
Reduced risk of injury
Stretching prior to your workout AND after has been shown to decrease the risk if injury. Ever try to do squats first thing when you walk into the gym? Ever wonder why you can’t get low (to the flo’)? Yeah, same. Cold muscles mean reduced range of motion and reduced flexibility. They also mean that they are at an increased risk for rupture, strain, or sprain. Stretching prior to your workout can help increase core body temperature and essentially prepare your body to move.
Why warm up?
These are 5-10 minutes that should NOT be ignored! Trust me, you’ll want to make the time when you fully realize the benefit it has on your workout itself.
When you begin to warm up, your cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular system and metabolic energy pathways are stimulated. Muscles require more oxygen during this time, meaning that your heart rate, blood flow circulation, and breathing rate all increase. Blood transports through your arteries and veins at a faster rate, and get directly routed to your working muscles – all while raising the temperature of your muscles and preparing your body for higher-intensity movement.
You’ll also notice that your muscles feel more “pliable,” allowing for a greater range of motion and increased flexibility during your workout. Stretching prior to your workout can also help to perform effectively throughout the entire duration of your workout: all of your energy systems have been primed and prepared. On a psychological level, warming up and stretching can mentally prepare us for the workout ahead and increase our focus.
Think back to elementary school gym class. Remember when our gym teacher led us through stretching? It most often looked like holding a pose for a few seconds, like touching our fingertips to our toes. Turns out, this type of stretching (also called static stretching), isn’t actually the most effective type to be doing prior to your workout. It actually HINDERS physical performance!
Research is now showing that using a dynamic stretch/warm-up is a much safer way to effectively prepare our body for our workout. Dynamic stretching uses integrated movements that help improve mobility, strength, balance, and coordination. It incorporates movements that move the body in much more complete ways, or in a way that involves a more active range of motion. Moving our bodies dynamically helps to lengthen the connective tissue around our muscles (or the fascia).
- Bear crawls
- Lunges with twists
- High kicks
- Walk or light jog
- Vinyasa flow
Why cool down?
Ever feel dizzy or light headed in the locker room after your workout? My guess is it’s due to blood pooling. When the body shifts from higher intensity movements to moving slowly (and completing the workout), the squeezing action provided by the working muscles to get oxygenated blood from your heart through your body is significantly decreased. This can cause blood to pool in your lower body, which means that the transportation of oxygenated blood back up to your heart and brain is much slower.
Ever feel some soreness or pain in your muscles, even 24-48 hours after your workout? Yep, this is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) due to microtears in your muscle fibers. Some soreness may be expected, but DOMS can become extremely uncomfortable and can make it hard to build a consistent workout routine. The stretching and cool down period after your workout is so crucial in minimized DOMS as it increases the blood flow to the muscles you just worked out.
On the mental health side of things, stretching can be used as a way to reconnect with our bodies, learn more about our body’s movement, and it actually releases serotonin and dopamine (otherwise known as the “feel good” hormones). When exercise is slowed down and you’ve entered into the cool down period, your body comes back to homeostasis, or a balanced state. At this point, you’re able to more fully feel the effect that the endorphins have on your body and on your mind. Remember: if we want to consistently move our bodies, we have to actually get something positive out of it!
While static stretching isn’t encouraged before your workout, it is certainly effective after you’ve completed your workout. At this time, your muscles are already warmed, and much more “elastic.” Static stretching looks something like this: holding a stretch in one position without ANY movement for 15-30 seconds (while breathing), relaxing, and then repeating the stretch 2-4 more times. Reminder: do NOT bounce a stretch. Static stretching is supposed to live up to it’s name. Static. Motionless. If a movement is painful, ease up and relax your muscles. There is nothing beneficial about stretching if the stretching itself causes strain or pain.
When we’re talking static stretching, we’re referring to two different types: active and passive. Active static stretching involves an added force that is applied by the individual doing the stretching. Passive static stretching uses an external force (like a workout partner) to increase intensity of the stretch.
- Child’s pose
- Leg crossover stretch
- Cobra pose
- Hamstring stretch
Myofascial release stretching
First things first: what is the fascial system? This is essentially a gelatin matrix of cells that connects your entire body. The system needs to be lengthened and pliable in order to complete movements. When the fascia is stressed or experiences any tension or strain, it actually hardens and oxygen/nutrient flow is blocked from entering into the injured site. Clearly, the fascial system plays a use role in aligning our body and simply moving.
Similar to the membrane around each section of an orange, fascia both separates and connects body parts at the same time. Containing nerves, these tissues also serve as a layer of protection and body awareness. Freeing up your muscles through myofascial release stretching allows them to function more effectively and independently. They are able to contract and release at a greater level, while improving range of motion. Clearing up fascia also helps create a pathway for nerve signals to flow directly to the brain. The result? Improved coordination and movement control.
Yoga and myofascial stretching
Many different factors in our lives can actually cause adhesions to form within the fascia, which restricts their ability to function fully. These factors can range from poor posture (sitting at a desk all day), muscular tension, dehydration, and an overall sedentary lifestyle.
When combined with deep breathing, yoga can help improve sedentary bodies while promoting a healthier fascial system. Specific asanas work to length the myofascial lines, especially when poses are held from 90-120 seconds.
- Downward facing dog
- Camel pose
- Extended side angle pose
- Seated gate pose
While foam rolling shouldn’t replace stretching, it is a great addition to your normal warm up and cool down routine. After static stretching specifically, foam rolling helps achieve a deeper stretch because muscles at this time are already more flexible and pliable. Foam rolling can help reduce soreness in specific areas when done twice per week for even just 15 minutes at a time. Plus, it just feels good to roll out dem muscles (and fascia).
When done consistently over time, you’ll see even more benefits besides just reduced soreness. Blood flow is likely to increase, improved range of motion, increased blow flow circulation, and increased flexibility (and lengthened muscles). When initially foam rolling, you might feel some discomfort. Lightly rolling won’t really be as effective, so try to apply as much pressure as you can without feeling pain. Slowly roll over the targeted area for 30-60 seconds.
Reminder: avoid your lower back (or lumbar spine) when foam rolling!