As a dancer in my teens, I was introduced to the power of stretching, as it was a mandatory requirement to do everything else my body needed to do in class and on stage. Stretching has been ingrained in me along with almost everyone else who has to use their body for a living. The importance of this simple routine in order to get the best performance out of our bodies cannot be overstated.
This same logic applies to all life activities. For women, stretching provides two indisputable benefits:
- It improves your body’s physical performance
- It decreases the risk of activity-based injuries
For instance, consistently stretching the hamstring muscles in the back of your thighs increases your range of motion or joint flexibility, which improves athletic performance. In my body sculpt class, I often do kicking exercises which both strengthen the muscles and get the heart rate up. The higher the kicks the more effective the exercise will be.
Who’s going to give me a higher reaching kick? The person who just walked in from the street or the person who has been doing hamstring stretches? Who is going to have more confidence putting energy into their kicks without fear of pulling the hamstring? The answer of course is the person who has been stretching them.
In my Pilates classes, leg circle isolations provide more benefit when they are bigger which forces intensity of the core to maintain the body’s position. Bigger leg circles require more flexibility than little ones so stretching both the inner thigh and hamstring muscles are important prerequisites.
Stretching becomes more important as we age because it can offset our joint tissues’ tendency to thicken, which limits flexibility and consequently puts us at higher risk for activity related injuries.
“For example, as flexibility in the hips and hamstrings decreases with age, we may take smaller steps. Regular stretching can help prevent this.” says Lynn Millar, PhD, a physical therapist and professor at Winston-Salem State University.
For women there are two types of stretch exercises, dynamic and static.
This kind of stretching involves gently performing movements that will get blood flowing to your muscles and warm them up. Marching in place and side-to-side toe taps along with adding upper body twists warm up the big muscles groups so you can start running, jumping or lifting weights. All cardio classes should begin with these stretches so either take one or observe the first five to ten minutes of the class for dynamic stretch examples.
This involves slowly stretching a muscle to its end position and holding it for a short period of time, usually between 10 to 30 seconds, and it should be done at the end of a cardio workout while the muscles are still warm and conducive to stretching. This type of stretching sets your body up to offset some of the daily damage we do, like long periods of sitting and poor posture.
Stretching should not be painful! Rhythmic, dynamic stretches should be a fun preparation for the more difficult workout ahead. Slow, static stretching should be carefully done with the goal to gently increase flexibility over time. Positions can be held for 10 to 30 seconds. I find once I’m in a position and my body is comfortable, I try to gently increase the stretch for the remaining time.
The American College of Science and Medicines recommends the following:
- Adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week to improve range of motion.
- Each stretch should be held for 10 to 30 seconds to the point of tightness or slight discomfort.
- Repeat each stretch two to four times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch.
- Static and dynamic stretches are all effective.
Below are some stretches on the Total Gym and the muscle groups they work:
- Big Knee Lifts – Warms up big muscle groups in the lower body
- Overhead Arm Press – Warms up big muscle groups in the arms and chest
- Seated Hamstring and Back Stretch – Stretches the hamstring, back, shoulders, and inner thighs
More Static Stretches
- Leg Pulls – Stretches the hamstrings and glutes
- Hipper Flexor Stretch – Stretches the hip flexors and glutes
- Open Chest Stretch/Open Chest Butterfly Stretch – Stretches the chest or pecs, shoulders and arm muscles
- Side Hip Stretch – Stretches out obliques and side glutes