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By The Editors of Prevention Health Books for Women
Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, helping to prepare them for exercise and recover from the effort afterward. Skip the stretches, and you won't get nearly the benefits you should from aerobic exercise and resistance training.
"Stretching helps you move freely during aerobic exercise, it enables your muscles to build more strength during weight training, and it helps keep muscles long and lean," says Sharon Willett, a physical therapist and sports trainer at the Virginia Sports Medicine Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
Stretching increases your range of motion by making your muscles, tendons, and joints more flexible. So the more you stretch, the greater benefit you'll get from your workouts, and the sooner you'll see results. Contrary to what you may have heard in the past, experts agree you should warm up your muscles before stretching, to avoid tearing "cold" or stiff muscles.
Stretching Prevents Muscle Strain
Lack of flexibility not only slows your progress but also can lead to injury, which can derail even the best-laid exercise routines. And unless you've been athletic all your life, chances are you're not as flexible as you need to be to get the most out of your body-toning workouts.
When you were a baby, you were so flexible that you could probably put your toes in your mouth. When you were a teenager, you could slither under a limbo bar. But as an adult, you probably wouldn't even think of taking a turn when the limbo music begins. As we age, both our muscles and tendons lose their flexibility. If the only exercise we get is flipping through the TV listings at breakneck pace, our muscles flex even less, getting stiffer over the years.
"Aside from the aging process, our habits and daily activities can also cause our muscles and tendons to shorten," says Willett. Even your shoes can inhibit your flexibility. For example, in women, wearing high heels shortens the hamstrings and calves. This won't be a problem when you're sitting still, says Willett. But if you try to do a leg curl or squat, the shortened muscles won't do the job willingly. Try to push a shortened muscle or tendon through too much exercise or range of motion, and you'll develop pain or an injury, such as tendinitis (inflammation of the tendon).
Ironically, it's not only aging and lifestyle that can affect flexibility, but exercise, too. "Weight training and weight-bearing exercise like jogging contract muscles again and again, shortening the muscles and tendons involved," says Willett. "So you have to take the time to stretch out your muscles again after you use them. If you do so, not only will your muscles and tendons retain their elasticity but also they'll be able to get even stronger. An exercise program that includes all three elements (cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility) will keep your muscles and tendons in the best shape possible."
Burn Fat While You Stretch
In addition to keeping you flexible, stretching burns calories and helps you relax.
"Stretching isn't aerobic," concedes Willett. "But you'll burn more calories by stretching than you will by sitting and doing nothing." For a 150-pound woman, 30 minutes of stretching burns 60 to 100 calories--about the same as gentle yoga--compared to 22 calories for sitting still.
As an added incentive, you'll find that stretching is extremely relaxing, especially after a workout. "Stretching will slowly lower your heart rate after an activity," says Willett. "That has a calming effect on most people. Also, the deep breathing and stillness required for stretching are really helpful for releasing tension both in the muscles and in the mind."
The Right Way to Stretch
Experts recommend that you stretch all your muscle groups, rather than just doing the stretches that target your particular trouble spot. All your muscles and tendons work together, so if you ignore one stretch, then you won't get maximum benefit from the others.
As for how to stretch, it should come fairly naturally. We raise our arms when we get out of bed; we wiggle our backs if we feel a muscle ache. All of these motions are really stretches. It's easy. Still, for maximum effectiveness, you need to keep a few rules in mind when you stretch, says Willett.
Warm Your Muscles
Stretching is not a warm-up. Spend at least 5 minutes doing some form of light aerobic exercise, such as walking, climbing stairs, or cleaning the house. Work hard enough so that you feel warm and you sweat slightly. If you stretch after your workout, your muscles will be warm and supple.
Pushing your muscles in short, jerky movements tears the muscle fibers. Instead, slowly and evenly move into the stretch until you feel resistance, then back off a little and hold that position.
Hold Each Stretch for 20 Seconds
"Stretches held for at least 20 seconds increase flexibility the most," says Willett. And don't hold your breath. Instead, take two or three deep breaths as you hold the stretch.
Do each stretch two, three, or four times. The real benefits come in increments, with each subsequent stretch.
When (and How Often) to Stretch
Stretching doesn't take much time--as little as 10 minutes should do it. And it's easy to fit into a busy workout schedule--all you need is an exercise mat. As for when to stretch, you have a number of options.
If you've just begun your exercise program, it's best to stretch each muscle group immediately after an activity in which you've used those muscles, says Willett. So if you're doing squats to tone your butt, for example, stretch the gluteus muscles immediately after the exercise. And if you're working out every day, that means you'll stretch every day.
If you're comfortable with your routine and never feel sore afterward, says Willett, feel free to do all of your stretches at the end of your workout.
If it's convenient, you can also stretch without doing other exercise (except warming up). You'll benefit from two half-hour sessions a week even on days when you don't exercise.
"You can even stretch while you watch TV," says Willett. "There's no reason to be formal about it."
(for upper, middle, and lower back muscles)
Lie on your back with your legs outstretched. Bend both knees and hold. Bring them toward your chest until you feel a stretch. Tuck your chin in and slowly bring your head up to meet your knees. Stay relaxed. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat four times.
Hip Flexor Stretches
(for muscles in fronts of hips and thighs)
Begin by kneeling on the floor. Bring your right knee in front of you and place your foot flat on the floor. Your left knee should be resting on the floor. Slowly lean forward to extend your left leg back, keeping your shin and knee on the floor. You should feel a stretch in the front of your right hip and thigh. Make sure your right knee isn't extending farther than your toes. (If it is, move your right leg farther back.) Hold this stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides. Repeat four times.
Inner Thigh and Groin Stretches
(for inner thighs and groin)
Sit on the floor with your back straight. Place the heels of your feet together and drop your knees out to your sides. Clasp your hands around your ankles. Using your forearms, slowly press your knees toward the floor until you feel a stretch. Do not force your knees to the floor. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat four times.
(for backs of thighs)
Lie on your back, keeping your lower back pressed to the floor. Bend both knees and keep your feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands to the back of your left thigh and slowly straighten and raise your left leg. Gently pull your leg in toward your torso until you feel a stretch in the back of your leg. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat with the other leg. Repeat four times with each leg. As this stretch becomes easier, keep the resting leg straight out in front of you instead of bent, for more of a stretch.
(for backs and sides of calves and the Achilles tendon)
Stand with your forearms against a wall and your right leg out in front of you with knee bent. Your knees shouldn't extend past your toes. Keep your left leg straight and your foot flat on the floor. Slowly lean forward on your right leg until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. This will stretch the upper part of the calf. Then slightly bend your left knee and repeat to stretch the lower part of the calf. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides. Repeat four times with each leg.
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