Embarking on a journey in health and fitness is initially an extremely daunting task. It is not necessarily the most complicated thing in the world, we all know that being healthy is a matter of finding the balance between eating and working out, but it can be an overwhelming prospect to take on. After all, we focus so much on the end goal that the steps tend to bog us down.
However, once we get started and make working out a part of our routine, this amazing thing happens: the challenge of figuring out not only when to workout during our day but what to do for those workouts becomes not so hard.
We get addicted to the endorphin rush of the workout, to our increased strength and confidence, as well as to the changes we see in our bodies. As a trainer, I love seeing this transformation in my clients.
While I am always excited to see that transformation and to exploit it as a trainer (in the most positive of ways of course), there is a tendency to forget about balance when that transformation occurs.
We get addicted to our own strength, to how good the workouts feel, and it creates a cycle where we continue working hard so we can see those positive results.
But if we want to see the continued transformation with our workouts, we cannot neglect the necessity of recovery as an aspect of our physical fitness. Stretching is a predominate aspect of this recovery, and arguably one of the most neglected.
Think about it: after a hard workout, how long are you taking to stretch? Maybe 30 seconds at best for most body parts? Even then, we are not stretching everything we should be stretching, which can lead to increased muscle soreness. However, stretching consistently has numerous benefits including:
- Increased flexibility
- Increased range of motion
- Decreased potential for injury
- Increased blood flow
- Decreased stress
- Improved posture
- Decreased muscle strain
Before we get into some easy stretches you can do on your living room floor while your kids and the dog are running around, let’s go over some basics:
How often should I stretch?
As a trainer, I would like to see you doing basic stretches for 5 to 10 minutes after every workout. Realistically, I know that we are busy people and typically your workout is ending at the last possible second before you need to get into the other aspects of your day.
So even if you are stretching after a workout, it is probably for a few minutes at best. If what I am describing sounds like you, I would be happy with 2 to 3 times a week of dedicated stretching of at least minutes per session.
How long should I hold a stretch?
At a minimum, 1 minute per body part. You have to give your brain time to register what it is doing and give your muscles time to experience the stretch.
Trainer tip: Don’t forget to breathe. When we stretch particularly tight areas, we tend to hold our breath, and if often feels like panic is setting in. Remember to take deep breaths when you hit those areas that are bothersome, you can even close your eyes if you need to focus.
Want to switch it up?
Stretching can be boring. It is not as exhilarating as a difficult workout, even though it is equally as important. If you find yourself getting bored, consider switching up your routine, and doing your stretching in a yoga or Tai Chi class.
Need some solid stretches to get started? Below are my top 5 stretches:
1. Seated hamstring stretch
sit down and extend your legs out in front of you. Sit up tall, and hinge from your hips, bringing your upper body closer to your legs.
Advanced tip: Move the flesh of your sitz bones out of the way and when you hinge forward, think about moving your glutes and groin muscles backward. This will lead to increased hip and low back opening.
2. Quad Stretch
Those quad muscles are total bully muscles. We walk forward all day so they are used to being engaged and take extra dedication to stretch and lengthen. For this one, stand up and bend one of your knees so your heel comes to your glutes. Grab onto that leg with your hand to stretch out the quads on the front of your leg.
Form check: Bring your knees as close together as you can and focus on engaging the glutes to help open not just the quads but also the anterior hip muscles.
Need some help? Grab onto a wall or a chair so the balance does not become an issue!
3. Tabletop Shoulder Stretch
This one is on the ground on your hands and knees. Make sure that your knees are right below your hips and your wrists are right below your shoulders. Take one arm, reach it up to the sky, and then thread it underneath your chest until you are laying down on the side of your shoulder and your cheek.
Form Check: This is a super easy stretch to lose the alignment of your shoulders. Make sure you are not using those muscles you use to shrug when you do this stretch.
4. Butterfly Stretch
Oh, those hips can be so tight, especially with the increased sitting many of us are doing these days. For this stretch, sit down, bring the soles of your feet together so your knees bend, and open to the side. At this point, you are already in the stretch, but check out the variations below to switch it up!
Want to deepen the stretch? Lay your chest over your legs to take the stretch a little deeper.
Make it a restorative stretch by relaxing your chin and your shoulders or keep it a more active stretch by keeping your spine long.
Need to back off a little? Take your feet further away from your body and separate the soles of your feet before laying your chest over your legs to make the stretch a little nicer.
5. Spinal Twist
I love doing a spinal twist after an intense workout. That rotation through your spine feels amazing and is awesome extra mobility for your thoracic spine. Lay down on your back slowly, take one knee towards your chest, take that knee across your body and stretch your opposing arm long.
Where do I look? You can look up to the sky or your outstretched arm, whichever feels more comfortable on your neck but be sure to check your shoulder engagement. The muscles you use to shrug should not be engaged while you do this stretch.
Want to make it more restorative? Lay a pillow underneath the leg that is across your body so you can relax a little deeper into the stretch.
The best thing about stretching is there are a ton of options. As with any new fitness regimen, start with the things you know and feel comfortable with before you add in things you find more difficult. Establish a habit of stretching so you can immediately find the benefits behind stretching and then add in more complex stretches as you become more comfortable.
Remember to breathe, especially when the stretch gets uncomfortable, give your body the chance to relax, and to back off if you experience acute pain at any time. As you take on your stretching endeavor, do not forget to ask for help from a trainer you trust if you run into questions, concerns, or you want to level up your stretching game!