Stretching And Exercise

Stretching techniques to improve flexibility and lower risk of sports injury.
After a grueling workout, taking the time to stretch each muscle sounds less-than-appealing. But stretching exercises are a crucial part of any fitness routine. And the benefits are numerous: According to the American Council on Exercise, stretching releases muscle tension and soreness, increases range of motion, and lowers your risk of injury and aids physical and mental relaxation.

And doing it right is just as important. Check out these expert stretching advice and easy-to-follow stretches:

Stretching basics

"Stretching is easy to learn. But there is a right way and a wrong way to stretch," says Bob Anderson, author of Stretching. The right way, he explains, is a relaxed, sustained stretch with your attention focused on the muscles being stretched. The wrong way is rocking or bouncing, as it sends a signal to the muscle to contract rather than to extend.

Stretch slowly, holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds -- the time it takes for muscle fibers to relax and lengthen. Exhale as you ease into a stretch, and then breathe naturally throughout as you hold your stretch. "Your breathing should be slow, rhythmical and under control," Anderson points out.

Stretching, when done correctly, should never be painful. Pay attention to your body; if you experience pain, ease up -- you're stretching way too far.

To keep your body in balance, target muscles in pairs, paying equal attention to opposing muscles. For instance, stretching your hamstrings first and then your quads, biceps then triceps, and chest then back.

Pre-workout stretching

There has been some controversy about stetching before a workout, namely the risk of injury if you perform stretching prior to warming up. Anderson's advice? It's safe, as long as you stretch comfortably and not strenuously. But it's a good idea to rev your heart a little before you bend, though.

A few minutes of walking or slow jogging to warm the muscles and related soft tissue helps get the blood moving, make muscle fibers extra pliable and your stretch easier.

Post-workout stretching

You should cool down after exercise by doing a scaled-down version of the main workout. "Get your heart rate back down towards a resting rate. Then stretch to prevent muscle soreness and stiffness," adds Anderson.

Get started with these easy stretches:

1. Neck stretch

Stand straight with your chest lifted and tummy tucked in, feet hip-width apart. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and still, slowly tilt your head to the left and hold the stretch. Repeat, tilting your head to the other side.

2. Back stretch

Kneel on all fours, back flat and abdominal muscles pulled in, with your knees in line with your hips, and hands in line with your shoulders. Keeping your abs pulled in, slowly arch your back towards the ceiling and as you look towards your navel and tilt your pelvis forward. Gently return back to starting position.

3. Lower body stretch

Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, lower back firmly pressed to the floor, and tummy pulled in. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and torso still, cross your right foot over your left knee. Then slowly lift your left foot off the floor, drawing knees towards your chest. Hold the stretch. Repeat with the other side.

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