Maybe you’ve noticed that as we age we become less flexible. We begin to lose muscle mass, our joints begin to stiffen and our range of motion decreases. Accumulated years of sitting and lack of use also leads to a shortening of muscles causing imbalances and chronic pain.
Stretching and flexibility training can help slow this aging process and deterioration and overcome some of the limiting effects by improving your range of motion, relieve stress, and correct muscle imbalances. Stretching is also ideal for warming up before, and cooling down after, your fitness activities.
Types of Flexibility Training
To begin your stretching program and flexibility training, add both static and dynamic flexibility exercises to your daily fitness program. Static flexibility exercises involve stretching and holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Static stretches are most effective after your workout while your muscles are warm. Examples of static flexibility stretching exercises include standing calf stretches and seated hamstring stretches.
Dynamic stretches involve muscle movement to increase blood flow, warm your muscles and increase your range of motion prior to your workout. Some examples include side straddle hops (jumping jacks) and arm swings, trunk rotations and side bends performed at a low to moderate speed and with a safe controlled motion. Dynamic stretches are best performed before your workout as part of your warm up for training.
How Stretching Works
Both static and dynamic stretching exercises lengthen the fascia, the connective tissues that surround your muscles. By lengthening these tissues you will be able to extend your arms or legs further which is known as range of motion. Stretching to improve your flexibility will also allow you to move your joints more freely, including your knees, shoulders, and elbows.
Is Stretching Safe?
Flexibility training involves “only” stretching exercises, but it is possible to overdo it by stretching too far, which makes it important to perform your flexibility exercises properly. During your static stretches, stretch the muscle involved until you feel tightness and hold each stretch for a minimum of 20 to 30 seconds, Stretch smoothly using a controlled fluid motion, without bouncing. Stretch just far enough that you feel a slight pull in the muscles.
There is one static stretch that you should avoid, the classic standing toe touch. This stretch places unnatural stress on your lower back and requires you to place your head below your waist making this a high-risk stretch for most over 50.
Dynamic stretches used during your warm up should also be performed using smooth and controlled movements. Dynamic stretches can also be sports specific to better prepare you for your workout or sport. Remember that as you begin, your muscles are prone to sprains, strains and tears. Increase intensity as your joints and muscles warm up.
Yoga and Pilates training also promote increased flexibility. Both approaches include a series of stretches that improve flexibility through poses, stretches and exercises practiced by millions all over the world. Both yoga and Pilates will improve flexibility while relieving stress.
How Often Should You Stretch?
Stretching every day would be ideal, but if you haven’t been active recently, try stretching 2 to 3 days a week. Remember that it’s best to stretch warm muscles, try some light to moderate aerobic activity like walking, jogging or a short stationary bike ride.
Remember to hold your static stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, recent research suggests that for those over 50, holding a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds may have greater benefit. Start with the shorter time and lengthening that time as you progress in your flexibility training.
Simple Stretching Rules
- Stretch daily if possible, before and after training.
- Develop a stretching warm up routine to use before your workout and a cool down stretching routine to use after your workout.
- If you stretch on days that you don’t exercise, stretch slowly and carefully. Consider a short warm up on the bike or treadmill to avoid injury.
- Gradually move into your static stretching positions, ease into the stretch without jerking or pulling yourself into position.
- Maintain awareness of the tension you feel, when stretching you should experience mild tension or very slight discomfort, but never stretch to the point of pain. You should feel the stretch only in the muscle or muscle groups that the stretch is focused on.
- When static stretching, don’t bounce. Find your beneficial stretch position slowly and then hold, once you have held the position for 20-30 seconds, relax and repeat, or gradually extend the stretch slightly further until the point of tension is reached and hold the stretch again. Bouncing contracts and shortens muscles that you are trying to lengthen and stretch. Bouncing leads to strains, sprains and muscle tears.
- As you stretch, take slow deep measured breaths and relax as you move further into the stretch.
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