Stretching is an important component of every exercise program. While many people know they are supposed to stretch after exercise, some are surprised to learn that stretching before exercise is also important. The stretching routine you perform will be largely dependent on the type of exercise you are about to do, but no matter what type you choose, stretching can prepare your body for vigorous exercise while helping prevent injury.
Pre-Exercise Leg Stretches
Since most types of activities involve your legs, you'll always want to do leg stretching before a workout (unless all you are going to do is a weightlifting arm workout). Pay careful attention to leg stretches before activities such as running, walking, soccer, football, basketball, and golf. Also do leg stretches before aerobic activities, such as Zumba, a stair climber, or an elliptical trainer.
When performing leg stretches, you'll need to incorporate all of the major muscle groups and connective tissue, including the following:
- Achilles tendons
- Hip flexors
- Hip abductors and adductors
- Gluteal muscles
The calf stretch stretches the major muscles and connective tissues in your back lower leg, including the soleus, gastrocnemius, and Achilles tendon. Use flexibility exercises to stretch your calves, helping you avoid cramps and protecting your vulnerable Achilles tendon from injury.
The muscles of your shins - tibialis anterior - need to be stretched in order to avoid shin splints. Performing shin splint stretches, which many people neglect, can help your prevent this common injury.
Your quadriceps are the major muscle group running along the front of your thigh. To stretch the quadriceps, perform the following steps:
- Lie on your left side.
- Grasping the ankle of your right leg, gently bend the knee and pull your ankle towards your back until you feel a stretch. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side.
When you stretch your hips, you are stretching your abductor and adductor muscles. These are the hip muscles that allow you to move your leg laterally. You also stretch your hip flexor, an area that often winds up extremely tight because so many of the positions you take and movements you make throughout the day hold your hips in a flexed position. Hip stretches also incorporate the gluteal muscles, which are those that run along the side and back of your buttocks.
Your hamstrings are the group of muscles running along the back of the thigh. Hamstring stretches are especially important because tight hamstrings can cause back pain. Many people have tight hamstrings, making it important to stretch them before any physical activity involving your legs.
Pre-Exercise Trunk and Upper Body Stretches
While it won't hurt to stretch your trunk and upper body even if you're just doing leg exercises, you definitely need to do this when you engage your upper body in activity. For example, you may want to stretch these muscles for activities like Zumba or step aerobics, rock climbing, upper body workouts, and elliptical trainer workouts. You should also do these stretches for all sports (don't forget golf and bowling, which use a great deal of upper body motion).
The major muscle groups of your upper body in need of stretching for these activities include the following:
- Lower back and costal (rib) muscles
- Abdominal muscles
- Upper back muscles
Upper Body Stretches
Perform these upper body stretches, such as shoulder stretches and back and chest stretches, to limber up. Also be sure to stretch your arms before any activity involving your upper body.
Your abdominal muscles include your rectus abdominus, as well as your oblique muscles. To stretch them, perform the following steps:
- Lie on the floor in a prone position with your elbows to your sides. Place the palms of your hands flat on the floor beneath your upper arm muscles.
- Keeping your hips and lower body on the floor, gently press up, lightly arching your back until you feel a stretch in your abdominal region.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Your neck is extremely easy to stretch, and it often carries a great deal of tension. Stretch your neck before you engage in any activity that involves upper body movements. To stretch your neck, perform the following steps:
- Sit with your back straight and feet flat on the ground (or stand).
- Place your chin to your chest and feel a stretch along the back of your neck. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Gently roll your head across your chest until your right ear touches your right shoulder. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Gently roll your head across your chest until your left ear touches your left shoulder. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Now rotate your head so your chin touches your right shoulder. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Rotate your head so your chin touches your left shoulder. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Do not extend your head backwards. This puts too much pressure on the top vertebra of your cervical spine and can lead to injury.
Tips for Stretching Before Exercise
While stretching before exercise is essential, it's never a good idea to stretch cold muscles. Instead, warm up your muscles with about five minutes of mild activity, and then stretch. When you stretch, keep the following in mind:
- Hold each position for about 20-30 seconds. This gives the muscles enough time to actually gain flexibility. Holding stretches for a short time does not allow the muscle to release tension and lengthen.
- Don't bounce. Instead, move fluidly into stretching positions. Bouncing can cause injury and won't improve flexibility. That's because bouncing actually triggers muscle contraction (shortening) instead of lengthening, which is the goal with stretching.
- Don't push past a point of discomfort, or you risk injury. It's okay to feel a stretch, but if it hurts, stop.
- To deepen a stretch, hold it for about 20 seconds, release, and then gently move slightly farther into the stretch than you did before. The release and restretch triggers the golgi tendon reflex, which allows the muscle to lengthen and relax. Doing this on every stretch can actually help you gain flexibility more quickly.
- Exhale into stretches. This triggers a relaxation response that allows you to more completely lengthen a muscle.
- Be sure to stretch each muscle group you are about to engage.
- Avoid locking any of your joints (a form of hyperextension) when you stretch. Joint locking during any form of exercise puts too much stress on the joint you lock, and can lead to soft tissue and/or joint injury.
- Once you have stretched, engage in exercise that gradually increases in intensity. This helps your muscles to continue to warm up to full capacity. Engaging in high-intensity activity too quickly can cause injury.
While stretching adds a little time to your workout, it's an important part of staying fit. Stretching not only prevents injury, but it increases your flexibility, which makes it much easier to comfortably perform the activities of daily living.