October 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
The lost art of stretching

Stretching is generally the part of an exercise program that ends up tossed aside with the notion that stretching is not that important or that stretching does not “get me in shape.” Contrary to this belief is the fact that flexibility is one of the most important components of an exercise program, general health and injury prevention.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Stretching your muscles helps you maximize the range of motion of your joints. This allows you to fully contract your muscles. Stretching can also prevent little tears in a muscle or tendon that occur when you force a joint to go through its full range of motion when the tissues are too tight.”

Neglect stretching and you eliminate an extremely beneficial part of an exercise program.

In order to be fit according to the American College of Sports Medicine, you must maintain five areas: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and lean mass. Many people leave out flexibility training and most people never achieve lean mass.

So why stretch and what does stretching actually do? Stretching:

* Warms up the body for more aggressive exercise

* Maintains good posture and body alignment

* Increases balance and bone strength to help prevent injuries and osteoporosis

* Decreases the chance for postural, muscular and joint imbalances, which can lead to injury or pain

* Reduces muscle tension, relaxes the body and promotes circulation

* Relieves stress and relaxes the mind

* Makes daily movement and function more fluid

Always warm up your body with some light cardiovascular activity or full body movements before stretching. You should never stretch cold muscles. Muscles are much like elastic bands and a cold or frozen elastic band will snap when stretched. So will your muscles. The difference, however, is that muscles maintain their stretched capacity far longer than an elastic band that snaps back immediately, hence preparing you for more aggressive exercise. Some important things to remember about stretching:

It is best to stretch after your workout when your muscles are at their warmest and most receptive to stretching. There is some research indicating that stretching can cause a short-term dip in muscle strength, so to get the most out of weight training reserve stretching until after your workout.

Never bounce. Ballistic stretching, as it is called, can cause small tears in the muscle that will scar, which tightens the muscle further. Essentially this makes you less flexible.

Avoid painful stretches.

Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds to give the muscle time to lengthen safely. Better yet, hold each stretch to the point at which the muscle feels relaxed. Avoid quick stretching. Repeat each stretch 3-4 times.

Learn to relax and breathe while stretching; it is crucial to effective stretching.

Remember to target all your major muscle groups, stretching muscles from largest to the smallest.  Also, stretch those muscles that you use at work, at play or during sports activities.

As a general rule, stretch whenever you exercise. If you don’t exercise regularly, stretch at least three times a week.

If you simply cannot stretch on your own, hire a personal trainer, try a group exercise class that focuses on stretching, or add a Yoga or Pilates class to your exercise program. Both of these are excellent disciplines that promote flexibility.

I have only touched upon the advantages and benefits of stretching. To learn more about stretching and flexibility look at Bob Anderson’s website,  HYPERLINK “http://www.stretching.com” stretching.com. Anderson wrote his first book on stretching in 1975. Today he is considered a world authority and updated the original book in 2000.

Another informative web site geared to sport specific stretching and injuries is thestretchinghandbook.com.

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