Facts About Flexibility Stretching
Flexibility is a key component of fitness, but despite its many benefits of fighting high blood-pressure, stress, pain, and general tightness, stretching does not get the time it deserves.
The governing body which sets standards in the fitness world, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), recommends that stretches should be held for a minimum of 10 to 60 seconds to receive maximum benefits. Similar to weight lifting, stretching should be done in sets. If done correctly, stretching will lengthen muscles, lower blood-pressure, and alleviate stress.
Stretching should not be seen as simply a part of the cool-down or warm-up section of a workout. Dedicate a chunk of time during your weekly workouts to flexibility training. Not only will be you be more flexible, you will lose more weight.
A flexible muscle has a greater range of motion. The bigger your range of motion, the more calories you burn. If your muscles are tight, you won't move as much and you won't burn as much. The more you move, the more you burn.
When to Stretch
The best option for improving flexibility is to join a class focused on flexibility or hire a trainer to help you. Classes that blend core strength and flexibility, such as Pilates and Yoga, are popular for building entire workout sessions around stretching. This fits with ACSM's stretching standards.
If you don't have access to a club or personal trainer, stretch on your own after your muscles are totally warmed up.
Stretching your muscles while they are cold is like trying to bend a noodle of spaghetti before you have cooked it. Warm noodles are nice and bendy. Cold noodles - cold muscles - are not ready to be stretched.
How to Stretch
Stretch each major and minor muscle group at least once, holding the stretch for up to 60 seconds. Don't jump right into a deep stretch. Ease into it, using your breath to consciously relax the chosen area. Slamming directly into a stretch cause your body to fight you, eliciting a stretch-reflex.
The stretch-reflex is a documented injury prevention mechanism your muscles automatically use to fight the stretch for the first few seconds. So start the stretch small, and gradually go deeper. Wait and feel for that release that is your muscles telling you it is okay to go further.For example, hold a hamstring stretch for 10-15 seconds, relax the muscle, and then stretch it again. Another option is to stretch each body part, and then do it all over again one or two more times.
How NOT to Stretch
Ballistic bouncing while stretching is a big no-no. This was popular in the early days of group aerobics. Participants would bounce to get deeper into a stretch. Current research shows that ballistic stretching just creates a longer-lasting stretch reflex. Bouncing makes the muscles tighten and is therefore counter-productive to the very purpose of stretching.
Do not stretch before exercising. Stretching does not warm up muscles. The phrase, “Warm up with some stretching” is a total oxymoron. Warm-ups should take the body through smaller range of motion that is specific to the workout ahead. Runners should go for a short, light jog. Walkers should walk. Yogis should do a few easy poses.
Ideally, stretching should be saved for the end of the workout, or stretching should be its own "workout." Follow ACSM's guidelines, and it will take you at least 15 minutes to go over your entire body. That extra time is an investment that will pay off quickly when you start noticing the benefits to your range of motion, stress levels, aches and pains, and your posture.
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