Stretching: The Benefits
It Can Be Boring, But This Is Why You Need to Be Stretching
You may feel you’re getting the most out of your gym membership, but are you getting the most out of your body? Here’s why stretching is so important.
Other than simply refusing to exercise, the failure to properly and regularly stretch, is the biggest failure when it comes to training. Having invested in a flexible gym membership, or gym day pass, we think, quite wrongly, that our time is better spent actually exercising rather than simply standing, holding poses. Perhaps it is inherent in our human nature that if we go to the gym, the last thing we should be seen to be doing is standing still. Yet the exact opposite is true. Here we look at the reasons why we should stretch, when to stretch and how to do it and moreover what can go wrong if we ignore the need.
It is not for elite athletes only, we all need to stretch. It promotes and protects our mobility. It keeps muscles flexible, and flexible is good. Think of a palm tree bending with the wind, compared to an oak tree standing strong and proud. It is likely that the biggest gusts will break the oak before the palm because there is no give.
Stretching promotes the health of the body. It keeps the muscles strong, flexible and healthy. Healthy muscles maintain a higher range of motion and support the joints in our body better. When we do not stretch the muscles, they become tight. Then, when they are called upon, such as with physical exertion, they are weak, and cannot flex. This in turn puts stresses on both the muscles and the joints that they support. These stresses and strains are what cause injuries and damage to the muscles and the joints.
If for example you have a sedentary job, and are sat down for most of the day, your legs are kept mostly in a bent position. This can result in your hamstrings, over time, tightening up, so that when you go to extend your leg, it feels tight at the back, and when you try to touch your toes, you might be lucky to reach your knees! Were you to try to go from constantly sedentary to active, without stretching the muscles, then they are at risk of injury, as they are incapable of the flexibility that is immediately called for. Think of the sprinter that goes from zero to full speed and then to stop within 150metres, then think how the muscles have to adapt, and you will see the need for stretching.
Regular stretching keeps muscles longer, leaner and more flexible, so that when exertion occurs, there is no shock to the muscle and it is able to cope better. It has also been shown that flexible muscles promote a better sense of balance, which can lead to a reduction in the risk of a person falling.
How to Start?
Firstly, although you have many different muscles within your body, you do not need to constantly stretch them all. They are certain key areas that should be the focus of your attention, especially at the start. Also, it may be wise, given that you have a gym day pass, to ask the assistants at the gym, which stretching they recommend for each type of exercise that you intend to undertake. There is also the option of asking a physiotherapist or looking online, or through an App.
The key areas to focus are however your legs, calves, quadriceps (thighs) and hamstrings; your hip flexors; and your shoulders, neck and lower back. Look to target these key areas up to 4 times per week. What you also need to remember is that stretching is not a competition. Some people will always have a better range of movement that you. What you have to compare is your own progress, how it is assisting you, how much better you are able to stretch after a time. When you focus on yourself rather than others then you will undoubtedly feel a higher sense of achievement.
It will take time, it will not happen overnight. As you stretch one muscle area, it, over time becomes more and more flexible. If you stop stretching, then all of your gains will be erased over time, so once you have started, do not stop. Like your overall fitness, it doesn’t not happen off the back of a gym day pass. It is a commitment to a lifestyle change, and will take time. Your progress may at times feel slow, and there will be plateaus. At these points, try changing the routine, or stretch, and seeing how that helps. If in doubt, seek help.
Studies suggest that it is dangerous to stretch cold muscles, just as it is dangerous to walk into the gym and then jump onto a treadmill at full speed. You need a modest 10 minute or so warm up to get the blood flowing and the muscles a little looser. The aim is to then adopt the stretch, and hold the position for 30 seconds or so, before moving onto the next stage. There is contrary evidence whether to hold the stretch static, or bob in the stretch. The former is probably better, but as you get older, the latter seems a little easier. Make sure you do not feel pain, a little discomfort may be okay, but not when it crosses the threshold. Learn to listen to and understand what your body has to say.
It is a shame that we all know that stretching is good for us and yet we do not do it more. The benefits are very well documented and the risk of injury by not stretching are too. Given that we have made a conscious decision to be healthier, and a financial decision to invest in a flexible gym membership to achieve this, it would be better to do it properly. Yes, okay, some may say that they do not need to stretch, but if you want to keep using your gym membership over and over again, rather than letting it go to waste due to injury, then a good stretch pre and post workout is the best way.