Whether we talk about the body or the mind, finding a healthy balance starts with the understanding of how tension works and to what extent it should be applied at any given moment. Our minds need activity, however too much action leads to stress while too little causes boredom. In like manner our bodies get too soft or too stiff when we don’t keep a nice balance between stretching and strengthening. Keeping fit does not only involve being aesthetically comfortable with our size or what we see in the mirror but should also include feeling and moving well and healthily. This comes only when we apply a functional type of training based on a perfect balance according our body composition, lifestyle and wiliness to make this happen.
Today we will cover some basic guidelines to help you become more flexible and understand how flexibility works.
When do I need to stretch?
Different fitness experts hold conflicting views with regards the benefits of the overall stretching subject. Some people stretch before and after their training session. Other people do not stretch at all. The truth is that there is no evidence showing that static stretches have any benefit while dynamic stretching does.
A good warm up should include dynamic and specific stretches (focused on the areas you are going to work) to prepare the body for the workout and prevent injuries. Static stretches are not recommended for the most stiffed / problematic areas when your body is still cold but at the end of the training session instead.
Close all intense exercise sessions with a nice stretch. You will benefit physically and mentally from it.
Moreover, you will notice a considerable flexibility progress if you aim to spend at least 20 minutes per week to go deeper into the stretches you choose. The best moment to do so may be at the end of your last training session of the week, before your rest day.
Stretching in the morning, as soon as you get up, and / or before going to bed is an excellent way to activate your body before starting the day and unwind your mind to get ready for a peaceful rest.
Why I should stretch?
Our bodies need physical activity to stay healthy but this is not meant to occur in one rushed hour as it usually happens but all through the day. Unfortunately for many individuals that hour is all the time they can spend since work and other personal and family commitments leave very little space to do what is best for our health. Our bodies then pass from a pretty sedentary routine during practically 23 hours a day to suddenly push and work at their hardest within that hour. As a result, the level of physical stress is obviously higher than if we would be active during practically as many hours as we remain awake, as it should be. That’s the reason why a good stretch after the workout may contribute to release part of the physical stress caused and inevitably kept in our bodies bringing equilibrium to this equation consequence of the formula of maintaining fit and healthy in today’s world of rush.
How long should I hold each stretch?
A basic static stretch should last around 30 seconds. This is enough to stretch the muscles you have worked during your training session. Holding the stretch any longer increases your chances of injury, however it also increases your flexibility when done it in a gentle and correct manner.
A more gentle way to make the stretch even safer is applying force gradually starting very lightly and increasing the pressure progressively, releasing the pressure and then repeating the same process several times.
How far should I stretch?
Some stretches may feel rather unpleasant. Furthermore, individuals who don’t stretch often and consequently feel stiff will find practically (if not all) stretches a little kind of torture. That is precisely the best indication of how needed those are. Nevertheless, stretches should feel uncomfortable but never painful. Pain is the body’s defense mechanism for injury’s prevention; it is a natural response indicating a potential problem. Be extremely careful and do not overstretch a muscle. It may take very long to recover. This is the reason why bouncing is never a good idea. Always stretch by pulling gently the specific part of the body you need to stretch the targeted muscle and apply force gradually. Stretches should be performed in a mindful and controlled manner all the times.
Which are the best physical activities to develop flexibility?
There are many physical activities you can engage in to become more flexible, among others, my favourites are Fitness, Yoga, Tai chi (and any modality of dynamic self-defence), dancing, running and swimming.
All advice shared here is meant to serve as mere guidelines. Please, see your physician for specific and tailored health advice.
- Never lock out your joints during a stretch. Keep a mini-bent in your knees, elbows, etc. to avoid joint hyper-extension.
- Do not bounce, jump or use momentum to go further in the stretch.
- Do not over-stretch your back (even when you feel back pain, you may actually need more strengthening work instead). Again, seek for professional advice.
- Mind the foam rolling, especially if you have no knowledge about anatomy. The fascia is a band of connective tissue which has an essential role in posture and movement, helping to keep the necessary tension for your muscle-skeleton and to keep stable. Chronic foam rolling contributes to release of fundamental tension from the fascia therefore it may cause more harm than good.
- Stay connected to your body trusting any warning above anyone or anything. This applies to exercise as well as stretching and large group classes (where a large number of injuries happen) are the best example in which this rule must be applied.
- Focus on the muscle you are stretching. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath and the muscle. Be present in what you do. Chances of injury (or over-stretching in this particular case) will decrease drastically.
- If you play music while exercising, adjust the style to the stretching vibe. Chilled out, a classical or similar style of music suits the best. The idea is to relax the muscle; so relax the mind too.
- Use your breath as guidance. Inhale getting into the right posture and visualizing the specific muscle to stretch, exhale letting go of any tension. Let the breath lead the movement.
- Think about the posture you aim for to have an idea of which muscles you should stretch more often or for longer periods of time. For example, to assist in the correction of a stooped posture you will need more stretching on your shoulders and chest (retraction).
- Work on flexibility (holding the stretch more than 30 seconds) on the areas you need allowing at least 48 hours rest of the targeted group of muscles.
- Relax any other muscles that are not working in the stretch to protect the targeted area or helping you keep stable in the posture.
- Relax your mind and enjoy. As it happens with a massage, you need to be calm and find the right point in between that slightly uncomfortable tension and that pleasing sensation at the same time.
- If you are not able to enjoy now, simply stretch thinking of the benefits you will find in the short term. Stretching will become pleasant soon 😉
Written by; Pilar