When I first started teaching fitness back in the early 70s, I taught aerobic floor classes, as well as competed in and coached power-lifting, and later bodybuilding.
In those days, we didn’t spend a lot of time stretching, and most people thought it was a waste of time. If we did stretch at all, it came before exercising.
Today, we know much more.
It is very important to stretch out after exercise, but not before! Before, it is important to do what is called range of motion exercises or dynamic stretching. This means rotating your shoulders if you are working shoulders, crisscrossing your arms if you are working your chest or bending your knees if you are going to work your legs.
So, range of motion before exercise and full stretches after.
Full stretches should be held at least 20 to 30 seconds, otherwise your muscles will resist the stretch. There are two micro-organelles within your muscles and tendons that regulate stretches. One is called the Golgi tendon organ and the other is the muscle spindle. These components protect against overstretching, one by resisting a stretch and the other by simply releasing if the stretch is too much. You must always ease into a stretch and hold it, rather than bounce a stretch or yank on your limbs to try to stretch them in order, to overcome the function of the muscle spindle and the Golgi tendon organ.
Static stretches are stretches that you perform slowly and carefully. They like an isometric exercise, no movement. There are also dynamic stretches which are gentle range of motion warm-up activities as previously discussed.
Your breath should go with the stretch. As you move into a stretch, think about what you are stretching and how your body is moving and then breathe according to that movement.
Other factors besides flexibility that affect your ability to stretch are how hydrated you are, as well as your levels of potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Water is an important nutrient. If you are dehydrated, you will not only feel weak, but likely suffer from muscle cramps as well. Calcium is an extremely important mineral and helps regulate muscle tone. If you are calcium deficient you may get severe cramping in your legs at night and wake up with a “charley horse” in your calves.
Magnesium and potassium are also important minerals that work to help regulate muscle tone. Proper nutrition, as well as a workout program that includes full body stretching, is important.
Having flexible muscles means less muscle strains or tears and also means easier movement and greater freedom of movement. These are especially important factors to consider as we age. About 20 years ago I added to my repertoire certifications in yoga and Pilates, two modalities of exercise that I felt were very beneficial to my clients and myself. The increase in my own fitness level has been significant as my flexibility has improved dramatically through the use of these two exercise protocols.
As for my clients, we always end each session with thorough stretching.
These days, all fitness professionals understand and advocate stretching. It is an important part of any fitness routine and should not be neglected. Stretching will help reduce post-workout soreness as well.
• Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., Certified Nutritional Adviser, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 212-1451 or www.janerileyfitness.com.