How to Improve Your Flexibility
When it comes to physical fitness, there are four primary areas of concern:
- Cardiorespiratory Capacity
- Muscular Capacity
- Body Composition
Most often neglected on this list is flexibility. If you go to a gym, you'll see nine out of ten people warm up with some kind of cardio exercise or light weights, perform their workout, cool down, shower, and leave. Stretching is completely forgotten. Many people can't see the point, don't feel it's worth the time, or simply don't know how. We're all scared of things we don't understand, and yeah, you might feel silly twisting yourself into all these awkward positions without really knowing what you're supposed to be doing.
Immediate Benefits of Flexibility Training:
- Reduce the risk of injury caused by working your muscles
- Encourage blood flow to muscles, helping to distribute oxygen throughout the body. When stretching after a workout, this will help your body cool down and prevent pooling in the veins after you stop moving (eg. in your legs after a cardio workout).
- Reduce muscle soreness the following day
- It feels awesome
- Helps to improve your posture
- Gradually increases the range of motion in your joints so that you can bend, reach, or stretch further.
- Keeps your body feeling good as you age
- Encourages you to take time to relax and focus on your body, which will help to improve your stress levels and how you cope.
Who Needs Flexibility Training?
Everyone needs to stretch their muscles. Balance is everything when it comes to fitness. Many women practice yoga and follow rigorous cardio programs, but never lift weights. At the same time, many men lift weights but do little cardio and often don't bother to stretch properly, if at all.
If you live a sedentary lifestyle and are stubborn, time cramped, inconsistent, or just plain lazy about exercising, you should at least include a gentle stretching routine somewhere in your day. Even if it's just taking a break from the office or television to stretch and walk around to get the blood moving and the oxygen flowing through your body. It won't necessarily increase your flexibility, but it will at least keep your legs from falling asleep
How to Stretch
If you're stretching after a workout, the method is simple. Do everything you just did in the reverse. If you contracted a muscle, pull it back again. For example, if you just did biceps curls you'll now want to stretch your biceps, so do the opposite motion you did to exercise them... basically just straighten them out.
If you're looking to actually increase your flexibility, more attention is required to ensure you don't hurt yourself. Follow these golden rules:
- Pain is NOT gain. Stretch only until you feel the tension, and hold it there for 10 seconds before a workout, and 20-30 seconds after a workout (this is when you'll see improvements in flexibility).
- Don't stretch cold muscles! Stretch only very lightly when warming up before a workout, and do a good stretch afterward. If you're not working out, you can get the same benefits from stretching after a hot bath or shower, when your muscles are warm and blood is pumping. Working warm muscles will reduce the risk of pulled muscles, or any other discomfort, and it will definitely improve your results.
- For total body improvement, split the body into major muscle groups: arms, legs, back, chest and core. Stretch each muscle group to increase your overall flexibility.
Muscle Groups and Sample Stretches
Biceps: Hold your arms straight out to the sides, palms open to the front. Turn your thumbs downwards so the palm faces back, and push gently backward with your palms. Should feel a great strech in your biceps, especially around the elbows.
Triceps: Lift one arm straight up and reach back to touch your shoulderblade. Use the other arm to gently push the elbow further back. Repeat with other arm
Hamstrings (Back of your leg): Sit on the floor with your legs straight, and try to touch your toes. Should feel the pull in the back of your legs.
Quads (Thigh muscles): Use a wall or chair to balance yourself. Bend your knee and try to reach back and grab your foot from behind you (Runner's stretch). If this is difficult, place a chair or other support behind you to rest your foot on. Stretch the quadriceps by pulling your foot upward while pressing out with your pelvis.
Chest: Stand next to a wall and place your arm against it so that the upper arm is parallel to the floor and the forearm is flat against the wall, your hand pointing UP. The elbow should be at a 90 degree angle. Simply turn your head and your body a little away from the wall and you should feel the stretch throughout your chest. Repeat on the other side.
Upper Back: On your hands and knees, tuck in your chin and tailbone, arching your back like a cat (cat stretch). Press upwards with your shoulderblades to feel a nice stretch across your upper back.
Calf muscles: find a step or other platform and stand with just the front of your foot, leaving the heel off the edge. Drop down so the heel is lowered, stretching the calf muscles.
Tibialis Anterior (front of your leg) If you run, this is a must! It will help prevent shin splints. In a lunge-like position, simply drag your foot shoelace-side-down behind you. Should feel stretching in the front of your shin.
Abs: Lay face up on a mat or floor, and stretch from your toes to your fingers like you're being pulled in two directions.
Lower back: Simply forward bend.