Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Long Muscle is a Strong Muscle – Stretch It!

I want to discuss one of the components, of an overall effective exercise program, that too many of my clients and friends tend to overlook or believe it’s not that important.

Stretching - properly and effectively, will help you increase your muscular strength!

Have you ever noticed how a cat or a dog, or even a baby, stretches their whole body when they wake up?  But not us, we have way too busy a schedule to take time to stretch.  And, when we do exercise – whether it be paddling, going for a run or strength training – well, we barely squeezed in the workout, we just don’t have the time to stretch.  Besides, stretching is boring and really, how can it help me get stronger, leaner or faster?

When we use our muscles they contract to effectively do what we want our body to do.  They contract daily, all the time.  When we exercise we are adding weight to that contraction to give us a more effective workout whether we use free weights, machines or our own bodies.  But we don’t want our muscles to always be in a contracted mode.  They then become too tight, potentially setting us up for serious injury.  A tight muscle cannot strengthen anymore, no matter what you do.

Stretching elongates the muscle.  Effective stretching relaxes and elongates the muscle even more.  But we usually stretch for 30 seconds.  That should be good enough, right?  No!

Every body is different in how effectively we strengthen or train and it is also true for how effective our stretches can be.  For me, I must be able to totally relax – totally!  That means for me, I must lay on a mat on the floor so I don’t have to think or so my body doesn’t have to feel that it must balance or hold me up while I go through my stretches.

No matter what way you find you can effectively stretch your muscles – a good stretch takes time to relax and stretch that muscle.  In class, and with my personal training clients, I first recommend that a stretch is to be done 3 times.  The stretch is to be held for 30 seconds the first time, then release, hold the stretch for 45 seconds the second time and the third time the stretch is to be held for a minute.  All the same stretch, stretching the same muscle before moving on to the next muscle.  Breathing into each stretch is also important.  Long, slow, deep breathing encourages relaxation. 

And, to stretch effectively and to avoid injury, there are a few basic principles you need to follow.

Avoid Pain – A light ‘sting’ or tug of the muscle is what you want to feel, not pain that the body feels it must protect itself from.  When the body senses pain, it feels the need to protect itself – the muscles contract – resulting in ineffective stretching!

Stretch slowly – moving quickly from one stretch to another can result in the body feeling the need to protect and, again, contracting the very muscle you wish to elongate!

Avoid affecting the joints or other muscles - focus on moving the joint as little as possible and not allowing other muscles to contract or work against your stretch.  As with exercising, you need to remember that the body takes the path of least resistance.  It's the same with a stretch, if the body believes bending a joint will alleviate the energy of the stretch, it will try to do so.

Maximizing the effect of your stretches should be part of your daily habits, just like brushing your teeth or showering.

Enough said for now. Until next time, I remain . . . Yours in Fitness!