While it might seem irrelevant to stretch if you want a six pack or improve your physique in general, it is important for many reasons and neglecting this area can lead to increased injuries, poor technique and average results.
Why You Should Stretch
One of the first things you will usually be taught about exercise, whether it is from a book, a video, or the fitness instructor you met when you joined the gym, is how to warm up. Part of this involves some gentle cardio to get the blood pumping, the rest is what to stretch and how to do it. Little explanation is usually given as to why you should spend time stretching before and after your workout, or that failing to do so could seriously affect your results.
Chances are that before you got the gym, or wherever you train, you were doing something sedentary such as sitting at a desk, driving, shopping or something else that didn’t involve using your body in an athletic way. Along with the accompanying stress which creates tension in the muscles you aren’t exactly primed for lifting. Stretching at this stage will help to lengthen tight muscles and tendons, crack out the odd knot and lubricate those clicky joints, all of which will help prevent injury. Especially if done regularly.
Now exercise of any kind, especially lifting weights, has the unfortunate side effect of shortening muscles which in turn leads to discomfort, posture issues, poor technique and greater chance of injury. It can also make your muscles smaller and weaker. Yes, you read that correctly. If you’ve ever experienced a loss of size or strength which isn’t the result of overtraining or inadequate diet, there’s a good chance that tight muscles due to lack of stretching is to blame.
How’s that? Well if you’re not very flexible your range of movement isn’t going to be too good, and the greater the range of movement the more the muscle is being worked. Plus short, tight muscle tends to get pumped (full of blood) quicker, so halfway through a set when what’s needed is more oxygen and nutrients and removal of waste such as lactic acid, things tend to get a bit backed up. This is going to make the next few reps more difficult if not impossible, which will over time affect size and strength. The blood flow to a looser, more flexible muscle will be greater however, allowing you to finish that set (motivation permitting of course).
At the end of your workout, whether this involved cardio, weights or both, there will be various waste products in your system which need removing. A good stretching routine helps this by loosening up all of your muscles and maximising blood flow. Now some people might be more concerned with getting their supplement-packed protein shake inside them as soon as possible to build those muscles, but given what I’ve just said about restricted blood flow, this wouldn’t happen as quickly as it could.
Problems From Skipping That Stretch
With restricted range of movement also comes poor technique, with the squat being a good example to use. Most people who do not stretch regularly have tight hamstrings due to sitting for long periods, as well as tight hip flexors which then causes the hips to tilt forward and causes lower back problems. This in turn causes upper back and neck tightness. Now when doing a squat, the tight hamstrings not only prevent a low position on the down phase, but with the tight hip flexors and poor posture the back will tend to be overly arched instead of being straight.
With the back doing a lot more work than it should this is often the reason for ending the set or not adding more weight, which will also turn into back issues and injuries, plus it means the legs aren’t getting properly trained.
Hopefully now I’ve convinced you to at least give stretching a try, so now I’ll move on to how to do it.
How To Stretch
There is more than one type of stretch but for most people, static stretching is adequate and safest for most people. It involves simply getting into a position that makes a muscle feel stretched and holding it, usually for a set amount of time. For example, the warm up, pre-workout stretch, should be held for 10-15, the warm down, post-workout stretch should be held for 30 seconds. However, if you feel that certain muscles could do with longer than 30 seconds then do so. Or you might find that doing 30 seconds, relaxing, then doing another 30 seconds is more beneficial. At this stage getting into the habit of stretching regularly is the most important thing.
The order the stretches are done in also matters but again, regularly doing all of them in any order is better than not doing them at all. My own full-body stretching routine takes just 20 minutes but I usually repeat it because the benefits I have gained have been remarkable.
Side Neck Stretch – This is ideal for tight neck and shoulders muscles such as the trapezius, especially if you have a tendency to hunch your shoulders when you get stressed.
Front Neck Stretch – This stretch concentrates more on the trapezius and is excellent for lengthening those tight neck muscles.
Shoulder (Deltoid) Stretch – Relax one arm and pull it across the body with the other, turning your head towards the stretched shoulder. Keep the pulling hand above the elbow.
Upper Back Stretch – This stretch will help to lengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades. Imagine you are hugging a large swiss ball. Lower your head onto your chest to increase the effect.
Chest Stretch – This can be done by holding on to either side of a doorway and leaning forward until you feel the stretch. Keep your elbows slightly bent and your back straight throughout. It can also be done one arm at a time if you find this easier.
Lat Stretch – This will stretch the lat (latissimus dorsi) muscles of the back which are prone to getting tight due to them being in their natural, short, position most of the time. This can be done one side at a time by holding on to a squat rack or cable machine and leaning back.
Triceps Stretch – Raise one arm above your head and then bend your arm, then use the other hand to push until you feel the stretch on the back of your arm. If you find this method difficult, use the side of a doorway or cable maching to push instead.
Biceps Stretch – This is very similar to the chest stretch except the arm should be locked instead of slightly bent. It can be done single arm or both together.
Inner Forearm Stretch – This might look like torture but it’s basically just an all-fours position with your hands towards you instead of away. You might find it difficult to keep your palms on the floor at first, but that just shows how tight the muscles are. Looser forearms convert to a stronger grip.
Outer Forearm Stretch – With one arm out straight, allow your hand to hang and use your other hand to pull so that your feel the stretch on the outside of your forearm. Useful for anyone who does a lot of typing or suffers from tennis or golfers elbow. Can also be done like the inner forearm stretch only with the back of hand down instead of the palm.
Adductor Stretch – The adductors are the inner thighs and are shortened by sitting and cycling. Stretch them by putting the soles of your feet together and using your hands or elbows to try and get your knees to touch the floor. Chances are you won’t, but when you do you’ll be in no doubt you’re more flexible and can move on to giving the splits a try.
Hamstring Stretch – There are many variations of this stretch but the aim is always reach for your toes while keeping the leg straight. In the seated version,once you can reach your toes pull them towards you rather than pointing them upwards or even forwards and put your other leg wherever is most comfortable.
Quad (thigh) Stretch – I prefer this version of the quad stretch as it also works the hip flexors too, which are a major part of lower back pain. The position is that of a lunge, with the front leg bent and the knee of the back leg on the floor. Once you can do this, fully bend your back leg and hold with your hand.
Glute Stretch – The glutes are the muscles of the bum or butt. A seated lifestyle and exercise such as squats or leg press cause shortness in this area which in turn can cause lower back and postural issues, which in turn can cause hip, knee and foot issues, so it’s important keep them flexible. The easiest stretch is to simply sit with one ankle over one knee, supporting yourself with your hands. As you get more supple, bring your foot closer to your body and lean forward.
Calf Stretch – The stretch usually shown in gyms is to stand close to a wall, step back with one leg and push against the wall. The alternative version is to simply stand on a step and let your heels drop as low as you can.
Shin Stretch – If you’re prone to shin splints the shin (anterior tibialis) stretch is worth trying and very easy to do. Just kneel down.
Give this a try after each workout and in just 6 weeks you’ll start to feel and see the difference in your posture, your flexibility and your exercise technique.
As always, any questions or feedback leave a comment below