Strrrrrretching. It’s something we are all guilty of blowing off from time to time, kind of like flossing your teeth. You don’t take it seriously or realize the impact of skipping it until BOOM you have a root canal. Ouch.
You know the drill (no pun intended). You have limited time to exercise because life is… busy. Yada, yada, yada. I know. I get it. You are proud of yourself for just making it to the gym and packing a high intensity workout of squats, curls, and treadmill sprints into 30 action filled minutes of sweat, breath, and tears. Then you scurry off to the locker room to shower and proceed with your day. You feel good.
Until the next day - "everything hurts" (whiney voice).
Why, you ask? It’s not rocket science: you bypassed stretching. And to make matters worse, you probably spend most of your week hunched over a keyboard in less than perfect posture. Repeat 5 days a week, and you’re a walking 2x4.
Now for some positive words –warm up and recovery strategies including dynamic stretching, core, SMR (self-myofacial release) foam rolling, and therapy balls are becoming more accessible and taking precedent in the fitness arena. Personal trainers are emphasizing the importance of addressing tight, imbalanced, and injured muscles more than ever before and are designing programs for their clients to include stretches to address muscle imbalances.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s great and all, but I don’t have time to stretch, and can’t afford a fancy trainer to design my workouts. No biggie. Here are some basics to keep you loose and limber.
Dynamic stretching (stretching in motion) is most effective during the warm up and serves the purpose of gradually increasing range of motion as well as flexibility, raising body temperature, and preparing the body for more advanced moves to come. The great thing about dynamic stretching is it involves movement so psychologically it just feels like more of a “productive” use of time than static stretching. To reduce risk of injury, implement these dynamic stretches into the beginning of your workout to wake up a number of muscle groups at once.
---Dynamic Warm-Up Stretches:
Front Kick with Hand Reach:
- Start with feet shoulder width apart. Arms should be by your sides.
- Kick your left leg up keeping it as straight as possible. The right standing leg should maintain a soft knee.
- Reach your right arm out to touch your left toes. Release back to the ground.
- Repeat on the other side, kicking up the right leg and touching the left hand to the right toes.
- You can move progressively across the floor, or stay in place.
- Keep alternating back and forth until you have done 8-10 reps per side.
Lunge with Torso Rotation:
- Starting with your left leg, step forward into a lunge position with your hands interlaced together in front of you.
- Twist the torso as far left as possible and hold for a few seconds.
- Release and repeat on the right side.
- Complete 6 reps per side, switching off.
Bridges and Planks:
Like dynamic stretches, planks and bridges are two excellent exercises for movement prep. They are what I like to call “big bang for your buck” exercises. Why? They are beneficial for just about everyone, take minimal time, can be done anywhere, are easily progressed or regressed, and make a huge impact on the body when performed regularly.
I love planks. But kind of hate them too. It’s a love hate thing. Anyways, a 30-60 second hold plank is plenty to activate the core, back, hamstrings, arms, shoulders, chest, quads, and glutes.
To perform a plank:
- Lie on your stomach
- With your palms down, put your elbows underneath your shoulders
- Rise up onto your forearms and your toes. Try to maintain as straight a line as possible from the shoulders to the hips to the toes. Or try a high plank (pictured below) by fully extending arms in a pushup position.
- Try 20 seconds to start and gradually work up to 60 seconds. Form is everything when it comes to doing an effective plank. Have a gym buddy make sure your back is straight not sagging!
If you find your lower back is sagging when holding a standard plank, try it on an elevated bench to help improve form. If still challenging, bend your knees slightly. On the contrary, if a standard 60 second plank is too easy (in which case you probably have a killer bod), try increasing the difficulty by performing a plank on a stability ball or alternate lifting one leg off the ground while in plank position.
Bridges are truly the antidote to sitting all day at an office job. Activating literally the entire back side of the body (glutes, hamstrings, lower back and core), just about everyone and their mother should be performing this exercise daily to help correct muscle imbalances. Not to mention, performing bridges regularly will give you a seriously nice booty; no joke.
Like planks, bridges can be easily progressed and regressed. If standard bridges are too easy, try a single leg bridge. If too difficult, try reducing the range of motion by placing a block under the calves.
To perform a bridge:
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent. Hands should be by your side and feet should be about shoulder width apart.
- Breathing out, push through the heels and lift your hips off the floor. Keep your back straight. Raise your hips up to be in line with knees and shoulders.
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Your body should be in a nice straight line. Be careful not to let the lower back dip down. To prevent dipping, the abs and glutes must be fully engaged.
- Breathe in as you go back to the starting position and repeat. Try two sets of 12.
Self Myofacial Release Recovery:
When it comes to workout recovery self myofacial release is where it’s at. You’ve probably seen foam rollers scattered throughout your gym. Up until recent years physical therapists have been the main advocates of these silly looking cylindrical tools and have used them as part of treatment. Nowadays you will generally find them in the flexibility area of your local health club. My advice? Use them -especially if you have chronically tight hamstrings, quads, or calves. Although SMR can be done either before or after the workout, after is generally preferred.
So what exactly is self myofacial release? Self myofacial release (SMR) mimics the effects of massage, applying pressure to knotted trigger points for approximately 30 seconds. Essentially foam rolling “irons out” knots in overactive muscles. Not to get all Anatomy-and-Physiology 101 on you, but essentially the effect of SMR is the Golgi Tendon Organs sense tension from the roller or therapy ball and react by overriding the muscle spindles. This then inhibits the overactive muscle and releases the tension. Ahhhhhhh relief.
To perform SMR for the hamstrings and calves:
- Using a foam roller, sit on the floor and place the roller under your hamstrings.
- Hands should be placed flat and behind your body with fingers pointing toward the feet.
- Cross the right leg over the left. Push up and balance your body on the roller.
- Slowly roll the foam roller under the hamstring and calf area back and forth.
- If you find a “tender point” in the muscle when rolling stop rolling and hold it there for 30-60 seconds. This will apply pressure and help release the knot.
- Repeat on the other side crossing the left leg over the right.
When it comes to foam rollers, a basic one will work just fine. However, if you are looking for something a bit edgier, the cream of the crop is the Vyper since it has the added benefit of vibration therapy. On that note, foam rollers in general are not ideal for hard to reach, concentrated areas such as the shoulders, neck, or upper back.
For those areas, I recommend the Hypersphere as this is ideal for digging deep into those nooks and crannies. Needless to say, this is not your every day home massage tool. Like the Vyper, it uses vibration technology making it highly effective, and widely used by athletes. It truly loosens up those chronic knots, increases flexibility, and improves circulation. For those on a budget, or with less severe knots, a regular therapy ball is effective. I like QOL Top Double Lacrosse Massage Balls as they are just the right amount of firmness. Tennis balls can also work decent if you are releasing the lower back or hips, however I’ve found tennis balls to be tricky to control under the neck.
No matter how you choose to stretch and roll, pre and post workout rituals will most certainly prevent long term injuries and muscle dysfunction down the road. The perception that stretching is a waste of time is so 1996 Musclehead. Seriously, get over it.