The perfect flexibility workout
Flexibility training, or stretching, is the often forgotten component of fitness and should be an integral component of everyone’s training programme. It is frequently neglected in favour of carrying out more resistance or CV training. It is common to think that unless you are getting hot, sweaty and out of breath, you aren’t getting any fitness gains, but just a few minutes relaxed stretching at the end of your training session will bring a whole host of benefits.
Stretching brings many considerable benefits including:
Reduced risk of injury
Reduced muscle soreness
Reduced muscular tension
Improved sporting performance
Improved body awareness
Exercise stretching time
To experience all the benefits from your flexibility training, it is important that you stretch at the correct time in your session. There is only ever one time to stretch properly and that is when your muscles are fully warmed up. Consider a piece of cold chewing gum and try to stretch it. It is difficult and ineffective. However, when it has been thoroughly chewed, it warms up, softens, becomes extremely pliable and can easily be stretched and manipulated.
Your muscles react in a similar way. Warm them up and increase the blood flow to them and they become much more elastic. Conversely, if they are cold, blood flow will be reduced and like the cold chewing gum, stretching them will become much harder, unproductive and can result in injuries. Hence for maximum effectiveness and reduced injury risk, all stretching should always be done with warm muscles.
How to stretch for exercise
To get the most out of your stretching session, simply follow the step-by-step guide below:
Warming up for exercise
The ideal time to stretch is at the end of your workout. This is because you will be thoroughly warmed up, there will be good blood flow to your muscles and minimal muscular tension. Flexibility training can be carried out as an isolated session, or before other training but only when the body has been completely warmed up. Moderate CV exercise for 10-15 minutes is ideal for a warm-up. Additionally, your warm-up should be specifically targeted at the muscles you intend to stretch.
For example: if you are going to follow a programme of lower body stretches for the major leg muscles, warming-up using a hand-cycling CV machine will be far less effective than a leg-cycling machine, treadmill or an outdoor activity like walking or jogging.
Relax when stretching
A second important factor when stretching is to be relaxed. Physical and mental tension will inhibit your range of movement and prevent your muscles from stretching as effectively. Hence, you will not achieve maximum flexibility benefits.
Don’t neglect your flexibility training
Ease into the stretch
Gradually move your body or the limb being stretched into the stretch position. Once you feel slight tension in the muscle, known as the point of bind (the limit of the muscle’s flexibility), hold the position. Avoid bouncing or any other movements which could overstretch the muscle and result in injury.
Relax your breathing
Always keep your breathing easy and relaxed because that will reduce all-round muscular tension, which in turn will allow you to stretch further. Holding your breath will tense up your entire body, making stretching much harder.
Hold the stretch for 30 seconds
To get maximum stretching benefits, you need to hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. Stretching each muscle for just a few seconds brings no flexibility benefits.
Pain means no gain
Stretching should invoke a mild feeling of ‘tightness’ or tension within the stretched muscle. Pain when stretching indicates injury or a muscle that has been overstretched. Therefore, never stretch beyond a ‘comfortable tightness’.
Rest and repeat your stretching
A single stretch for each muscle is very beneficial, but if time permits carry out two stretches for each muscle, separated by a short break of 30 seconds. The second stretch will help extend your range of movement further.
Frequency of stretching
Ideally, stretch the major muscles after every workout but if that proves too time-consuming, stretching twice a week is a suitable target.
Which muscles should I stretch?
There are more than 600 muscles in the human body but for a balanced flexibility programme, the key ones to consider are:
|Lower body||Upper body|
|Hamstrings||Back of thigh||Back|
|Quadriceps||Front of thigh||Neck|
|Calves||Back of lower leg||Chest|
|Glutes||Buttocks||Lats||Sides of back|
|Hip flexors||Front of pelvis||Shoulder|
|Adductors||Inside of thigh|
Flexibility when stretching
The more flexibility training that you carry out, the more benefits you will enjoy. Far from detracting from your other training, substituting some stretching for a few extra minutes CV or resistance training will improve your overall fitness, not decrease it. If you can complete two, 10-minute stretching sessions each week, you are well on the road to keeping mobile, supple and injury-free and the ‘forgotten component of fitness’ will be a thing of the past.
Image: Getty Images