If you’re like most people, simply the title of this blog post will be enough to turn you off. Yet, spending an extra ten minutes to stretch, warm up and cool down could make all the difference to your workout and recovery.
When our bodies are in their natural state, our muscles are only used to being stretched for daily activities such as walking or lifting light-weight objects. Therefore, if we jump right into a workout and apply extra weight or ask our muscles to suddenly perform under a greater range of motion (for example in yoga), we risk pulling a muscle and causing injury.
Therefore, before we undertake any form of exercise, it’s a good idea to warm up the whole body. Here’s my gentle full body stretch that you can do at home or in the gym.
In order to warm the muscles up and gently lengthen them ready for exercise, we need to reach the point of tension and hold for 10 – 15 seconds. There are two types of stretches: static and dynamic.
Static stretches are performed when standing, sitting or lying still, where the only action is the stretching of a specific muscle. An example of a static hamstring stretch would be sitting and reaching towards the toes of your straight leg.
Dynamic stretches are movement based and can lead to overstretching of the muscle if not careful, causing injury. An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch is swinging a straight leg in front of you to waist height. It’s easy to see how swinging the leg too high when the muscle isn’t warmed up could stretch it too far and cause injury.
Warm ups and stretching go hand-in-hand. Choosing a light exercise to raise your heart rate will get fresh blood pumping around your body, delivering oxygen and heat to those vital muscles and organs such as the lungs and heart.
Where possible, choose a warm up that targets the whole body. The cross trainer is a great example of this, as the legs and arms are both moving, while the core is used to stabilise the body. A brisk walk would be a non-gym equivalent. However, it’s also fine to target the upper and lower body separately with some body-weight movements.
Similarly, helping the body return to its natural state post-workout is also key to reduce the likelihood of injury and muscle soreness (otherwise referred to as DOMS). Ending your exercise with an activity that gradually lowers your heart rate will help to bring your blood pressure back to its resting state. Walking is a good example of this, and can be performed on a treadmill or outside. Alternatively, some gentle body-weight movements after a weighted training session will have a similar effect.
When stretching post-workout, it’s recommended to be mainly seated or lying down. This is because our balance can be affected when we workout, as our blood pressure and heart rate spike. Again, static stretches are recommended, and it’s a great idea to target the particular muscles used in your workout. Here’s where you might want to include a foam roller, as the muscles will be warm, you’ll be able to reach any kinks that need ironing out.
Post-exercise stretches are also a great opportunity to turn your maintenance stretches into developmental stretches. You’ll recall that when warming up, I recommended holding for 10 – 15 seconds at the point of tension. This maintains the muscles current range of flexibility. However, once the muscles are warmed and stretched from our workout, we have the option to stretch them further with less risk of injury. Thus, increasing our flexibility. This is known as a developmental stretch.
Holding the stretch for 30 seconds this time, rather than releasing the stretch, you should find that you can push yourself a little deeper. It’s important to only increase the stretch a small amount to reduce the risk of injury. Breathing out as you stretch further is a top tip, too! And don’t be afraid to use some help. Adding a resistance band can help to pull you towards your toes, letting your legs fall out against a wall uses gravity to hold the stretch, and asking a friend to help can also help you to maintain your position before pushing deeper.
Now you know more about the importance of stretching, warming up and cooling down, will you be more likely to include them in your workouts? Let me know in the comments below.