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Now That’s a Stretch

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When it comes to physical fitness, people often focus on weight lifting, cardio, or diet.  And why not? Isn’t that what physical fitness is all about?  Well, it’s true these are important.  But one equally as important that people rarely talk about is stretching.  I would argue that stretching is just as important as weight lifting, cardio, and diet.  One could even argue more important because if you tear or strain a muscle due to not properly stretching, you’ll find it difficult to exercise.  And since exercise is a keystone habit, without it, most people’s diet tends to fail too.  So, stretching is extremely important.

What stretching does…

Stretching allows you to purposely flex or stretch a muscle in order to improve it’s elasticity and decrease the chances of an injury before and after working out.  It can help you warm up and achieve better muscle tone.  Stretching will give you a wider range of motion and decrease your likelihood of injuring yourself during any strenuous activity.

But all stretching is not created equal.  There are two general forms of stretching that need to be considered.  They are Static stretching and Dynamic stretching.

Static Stretching

Static stretching is probably the stretching you were taught in gym class as a kid.  These stretches involve stretching the muscle to its farthest comfortable point and holding it there.  Then you can slowly stretch it a little more and a little more to loosen it up.  These stretches don’t involve much movement and are characterized by stretching a muscle and simply holding it there for a short period of time…like 15-30 seconds.  An example of a static stretch is bending over, touching your toes (straight legs), for 20 seconds.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is more of an active stretching.  This stretching involves some sort of movement that gets blood pumping to the muscle.  As more blood pumps to the muscle and you slowly move it into action, the muscle becomes looser.  An example of a dynamic stretching are lunges.

So, which is better?

I was always taught the static way, and it was a staple of all my workouts for many years.  Recent studies have shown that static stretching tends to reduce our overall muscular strength and maximal performance.   For this reason, a more dynamic approach to stretching is recommended.

Over the last 18 months, I have been using a combination of static and dynamic stretching.  I tend to perform some dynamic stretching to get the blood pumping to the muscles I want to stretch.  I don’t hit every muscle with dynamic stretching, just like I don’t hit every muscle with static stretching, but I do make sure I hit the majority of muscles with a combination of the two.  With this approach, I feel like I have my bases covered.  I haven’t experienced any major muscle issues since.

The Takeaway

Stretching is just as important to your physical fitness as weight lifting, cardio, or diet.  Properly stretched muscles are less likely to be injured and more likely to be better toned.  Stretching gets you warmed up and ready for action.  Though recent studies have shown that dynamic stretching is the recommended way of stretching, I practice a combination of dynamic and static stretching before every workout.  In my experience, this approach has worked great for me and has been the most effective at helping me avoid injury.

Regardless of what type of stretching you choose to perform, the main point to take is that you NEED to stretch daily.  You need to flex and stretch your muscles to avoid injury.  Even if you don’t work out, you need to stretch your muscles.  You don’t want to pull a muscle bending over picking up a bag.  You laugh, but it happens.

As a side note, I work in some static stretches throughout my day.  I work on a computer all day and am sitting most of the time.  For this reason, I purposely get up every 90 minutes, take a walk around the house, and then come back performing some static stretches that stretch my calves, back, neck, and shoulders.  I don’t push them too far…just enough to get a little stretch in.  It really helps.

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