Stretching is probably the part of your workouts you’re most likely to skip. Whether you don’t think it really matters, or are just lazy; you should know your flexibility is an important factor in creating a fitness regimen that is sustainable!
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (2014), in order to achieve optimal neuromuscular efficiency (our bodies ability to recruit muscles and produce force, as well as stabilize the body) we must have adequate flexibility! And for all of us interested in getting faster and stronger, that makes flexibility an essential piece to our success.
3 Ways to Improve Flexibility
#1) Self Myofascial Release (SMR)
SMR or foam rolling can be used to help correct existing muscle imbalances, reduce knots in the muscle, and reduce tension in tight muscles. It can be performed both before and after exercise; and BONUS: doing SMR before stretching can even improve the ability to lengthen the muscles!
To properly perform SMR, roll your foam roller slowly along a tight area, until you identify a tender spot. Apply a gentle force to the knot. Hold for a minimum of 30 seconds or until the tension in the muscle is released (this will take longer if you can’t relax). Check this foam rolling blog to learn how to foam roll like a pro!
#2) Static Stretch
Static Stretching can be used to correct existing muscle imbalances, and to lengthen overactive (tight) muscles. It can be performed both before and after exercise.
Some studies do suggest that static stretching can reduce power for up to 10 minutes after performed. Because of this research, static stretching is not suggested directly prior to explosive activities. Despite this research, there is also research that suggests the benefit and success of long term stretching programs, even to explosive athletes. Overall, static stretching programs are recommended for all- just maybe save the static stretching for your cool down if you’re preparing for an explosive workout!
To correctly perform static stretch, stretch your muscle enough to feel tightness, but no pain. Hold in this position for a minimum of 30 seconds. Repeat each stretch 1-3 times. (Examples: forward fold, butterfly stretch, pretzel glute stretch, etc.)
#3) Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic stretching is the most complex and integrated form of stretching. It involves both lengthening of the muscles, while also controlling movements. Dynamic stretching is a great practice to add to pre-activity warm up.
Dynamic Stretching will be the best stretch to prepare your muscles for dynamic activity. Because dynamic stretching involves stretching through movement, it’s important to take precaution to avoid injury. Easing into dynamic stretching, with light static stretch and light general warm up before, will help prepare and warm your muscles for the stretch.
To practice dynamic stretch, it is recommended to perform 1-2 sets, of 10-15 reps, for around 3-10 exercises. (Examples: Leg Swings, Butt Kicks, Walking Lunges, Inchworms, etc.)
So When Should I Stretch?
Overall it doesn’t matter if you stretch before you workout, after you workout, or some other random time in the day. Long term stretching programs implemented at any time, provide benefit. Overall, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests a minimum of two times a week at 60 total seconds per exercise.
Although you will receive benefit from a general stretching program no matter what the time, stretching can be a great addition to your warmup and cool down. To add stretching into your routine, my first tip is to focus on getting a stretch on the muscles/areas of your body you’ll be using (i.e. if you’re running- make sure your shoulders, and legs are loose and ready to go)!
Stretching During Your Warmup
During your warmup, SMR and dynamic stretching will be the best additions to your routine. Do some SMR on any tight areas before even beginning your warmup. Once those tight muscles are relaxed, start with 5 minutes of light cardio to warmup the core body temperature.
Once your muscles are warm, they’re ready for some dynamic stretching. To perform a good dynamic stretch, prepare your hips/ankles/shoulders- whatever muscle groups you’ll be using- by taking each through stretches and activities that provide a full range of motion (Then, of course finish up the warmup with more specific skills like running drills, strides, or exercises depending on your activity).
Stretching During Your Cool Down
During the cool down phase of your workout, after you’ve slowly brought your heart rate down with some light cardio, get some good stretching in. Start off with some SMR to prepare your muscles for an even deeper stretch. Finally, get a good deep static stretch. At this point, your muscles will be warm and most pliable, so this is an optimal time to perform your static stretches.