Stretching is so important to keep your body flexible and improve your all-round functional fitness! You probably lift weights to increase strength but how much time do you spend working on your flexibility?
First complete a general warm-up to increase the elasticity of your muscles then go on to performing warm-up stretches. Stretching the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your shoulders, neck, back, hips and hamstrings can tremendously reduce the chance of injury during a workout.
The combination of a proper breathing technique, knowledge of flexibility theory and the following stretches can result in a more limber and safer fitness practice.
Breathe to Succeed
It is very useful to know how you should breathe while you’re stretching. Long deep breaths that mimic the way we breathe while sleeping will prevent muscles from panicking and resisting the intended stretch.
There are a couple of different ways to practice this breathing technique. FIrst try inhaling through the mouth slowly and exhaling through the nose. An even better way to focus on breathing deeply is to only inhale and exhale through the nasal cavity.
Remember to inhale when you are preparing to enter the stretch pose and to exhale as you are relaxing into the pose.
How Stretching Works
So how does the body become more flexible? As the connective tissues stretch they develop micro tears. With a rest day or two in between stretch sessions these micro tears heal and elongate. The result is increased flexibility.
Listening to the body and recognizing the difference between a good stretch and something that may have overstretched will be the key to success with increasing flexibility.
Full-Body Stretching Routine – Neck and Shoulders
Beginning with the neck and shoulders there are quite a few ways to warm-up important muscles in the upper body such as the trapezius.
Stretch #1: Shoulder Shrugs
Simply raising the shoulders towards the ears and releasing down.
Stretch #2: “Cat’s backs”
Starting in a sitting position crouch the torso forward imagining that the shoulders will meet in the front. Reverse the position, pushing the chest out and imagine touching the shoulder blades in the back. Practice a breathing pattern with this pose by inhaling while crouching and exhaling while releasing into the back bend.
Stretch #3: Shoulder rolls
Leading with the top of the shoulder create small counterclockwise circles simultaneously with both shoulders. Repeat this motion in a clockwise direction.
Stretch #4: Static neck stretch
Very lightly and gently imagine touching one ear to the top of the shoulder holding to feel the stretch on the side of the neck. Repeat on other side carefully as to not overstretch.
Stretch #5: Plow pose
At first glance this pose is intimidating to the beginner, but very easy. On a cushioned, yet study surface like a yoga mat lay down on the back with the arms extended flat for support. Pushing with the arms raise the feet above and back to touch the ground behind the head. The motion is similar to a backward somersault with the legs fully extended. Exit the pose by reversing the entry. To prevent injury do not turn out to the side.
Full-Body Stretching Routine – Back
Moving on down the body the back is the next area to target with stretching. Back stretches alternate between bending forwards and backwards. In order to maintain a safe back stretch one must always counteract each stretch with a bend in the opposite direction.
Stretch #1: Cobra
Laying flat on the stomach with the hips anchored to the ground slowly raise the torso up by pushing against the ground with the palms of the hands. It should look similar to the raised position of a push-up. This should create a slight bend in the lower back. By repeating the same motion while keeping the chest anchored to the ground it should result with a bend in the middle of the back. Follow this up with a back stretch bending forward.
Stretch #2: Front curls
Sitting in the pike position hold the arms underneath the legs slightly after the knees. From this point imagine that there is a string tied to the middle of the back and it’s pulling the back into a teardrop shape. The positioning of the hands under the thighs determines where the bend will be in the back. Holding the hands under the middle of the thighs will target the mid back and any higher will bend the upper back.
Stretch #3: Spine twists
While sitting cross-legged turn the torso to the left and then repeat by turning to the right. This exercise is for warming up the back muscles in general.
Full-Body Stretching Routine – Hips
When stretching to open up the hips it is very important to incorporate light strength training to keep the legs and hips stable. Before starting, it is recommended to do a series of calf raises and squats. Pay very close attention to whether or not the knees are twisting while stretching the hips. The twisting could result in slight discomfort or in the worst case scenario a torn meniscus.
Stretch #1: Butterfly
Begin sitting with the legs open and the soles of the feet against one another. A beginner will feel a stretch along the thighs as gravity brings the knees towards the ground. To improve upon this stretch one can hold the pose for 30 seconds and upon the 30th count inhale and relax further into the pose with the exhale.
Stretch #2: Hip opener – Laying on the back with one foot comfortably planted on the ground and bent at the knee, position the other foot right above the knee and pull towards the chest. This is without a doubt the easiest and most efficient way to open the hips if practiced with each leg diligently.
Full-Body Stretching Routine – Hamstrings
Hamstrings can be stretched in more than one area. The following exercises target areas along the thighs and behind the knees. Further down the line more advanced stretches can involve combining hamstring and back stretches.
Stretch #1: Froggy
This pose can be entered by beginning in the Butterfly position. Sitting in Butterfly roll the legs forward so the inner thighs are facing downwards. Extend the calves so the legs create a box in the back. The pose should resemble the way a frog splays it’s legs out. The hamstrings are being stretched along the inner thighs.
Stretch #2: Pike stretching
Beginning in pike roll the hips forward and grab the feet. The stretch should be felt behind the knees. Practice deep slow breathing to relax into this stretch as the muscles could panic and lessen the benefits of the warm-up.
Stretch #3: Straddle
Standing with the legs slightly more than shoulder width apart, lean down and firmly plant the hands on the ground in between the legs. By using the hands and arms as stabilizers slowly lower and spread the legs into a straddle split. This stretch may be easier to practice on a wood floor with socks on to reduce friction.