If you’ve read any stories in the media the past few years about stretching, then you quite possibly received the message, “Don’t stretch!” And especially don’t stretch before activity, because some studies have found that traditional, static stretching (lengthening the muscle to the point of tension and holding) doesn’t help prevent injury and can actually impede performance.
The truth? “If you’re not getting ready to do something where a tenth or hundredth of a second is important, then the concerns about static stretching impeding performance are not as great as they’ve been made out to be,” says Peter Ronai, assistant professor of exercise science at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. Still, you’re probably better off saving the old bend-and-hold moves until after your activity, he says.
An alternative method is dynamic stretching —where your muscles lengthen by way of fluid movements—both before and after activity. “I don’t even like to call it ‘stretching’ anymore,” says Ronai. “It’s flexibility training.” When some muscles are too tight and others by turn are being pulled too long, it’s like your body is having a tug-of-war with itself. “Evidence is very strong that flexibility training helps maintain good joint mobility and may help restore a normal, optimal length to the muscles to keep your body in balance,” he says.
Here’s a routine from Ronai especially good for hikers, backpackers, trail runners, and bikers to be done before and/or after exercise. The most important tip for success: Start gently, he says, keeping motions small and easy to avoid strain. “Your body will release tension a little bit each time.” As you progress, keep the motions slow and fluid, with a brief pause near the end of your range of motion.
Modified prone press-up: Lie facedown on the ground with the tops of the feet on the floor and hands under your shoulders. Keeping your waistline pressed comfortably into the ground and elbows in against your body, push with your arms and gently extend your spine upward (this is a yoga cobra pose). “It’s like your back’s in the reverse position of being on a bike,” says Ronai. Do the move two to four times, holding each for five seconds if you typically suffer from back pain, or 10 to 30 seconds if you’re pain-free.
Walking lunge with overhead arm: Standing with feet together, step the left leg forward, bending the left knee so you’re in a forward lunge position. Hold while you lift the right arm overhead and reach sideways to the left. Lower the arm and step forward with the right leg, repeating the lunge and arm raise with the opposite leg/arm. “You’ll really feel the stretch in the front thigh and hip muscles,” says Ronai. Work up to two sets of 10 lunges with each leg.
The inchworm: Standing with feet together, bend forward putting your palms on the floor in front of you (bend your knees as much as you need to). Walk your hands forward until your body is in a plank position, with your core tight and back straight. Walk your feet back toward your hands in tiny steps, keeping your legs as straight as possible. When your feet reach your hands, walk your hands forward again. “In addition to activating your core, the inchworm stretches all the way from your neck to your Achilles,” says Ronai, and is particularly good for the shoulder girdle, lumbar spine, and entire back of the legs. Work up to two sets of 10 movements.
The scorpion: Lie on your stomach with arms outstretched, cross your right leg behind you, and reach your heel toward the left arm, hold for a brief pause, then return to start and cross with the left leg. (It’s more comfortable if you turn your head away from the direction you’re reaching your heel.) “If you’re tight in the hips you may not do much better than crossing behind your knee to start, but that’s OK,” says Ronai. Work up to two sets of 10 movements per side.
DID YOU KNOW?
In addition to warming up and stretching muscles, flexibility training also releases synovial fluid into joints, which lubricates them for better function.