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How to stretch to flex

How to stretch to flex

If you have small children you will probably be quite amazed at how bendy they are, and look nostalgically back to the time when you were the same. It is important not to ignore increasing stiffness. What are the warning signs that it is time to take action, and how can stretching help to regain lost flexibility?

Do you remember when the floor did not seem to be so far away? How about the time when it was much easier to put your socks on? Do you marvel at small children who can squat down without saying ‘oof’ and seem to bend happily in all sorts of directions? Noticing that you are not as flexible as before is usually the first reminder that we are no longer twenty years old. Take it as a wakeup call to take some action to avoid future problems.

Anyone who has ever watched gymnasts, ballet dancers or circus performers will have marvelled at the flexibility possible for the human body. This level of agility is not given to us all, and the positions that we can reach are affected by many factors including age. Some people are simply bendier than others, and of course the different joints of the body are designed to have different ranges of movement. It is even possible to be over-flexible – people with this condition may be able to produce some interesting party pieces, but are more prone to joint problems and dislocations.

Maintaining flexibility is very important, particularly so as we age – this is a definite case of ‘use it or lose it’. The good news is that flexibility can be greatly improved. If you are in your twenties and cannot do the splits, you probably never will, but there are plenty of other improvements that can be made. You may be surprised to find out how much more flexible you can become, and it is never too late to work on this.

Flexibility relates to all muscles, including the small muscles that stabilise joints and are often overlooked in fitness and workout programmes. Signs that your flexibility needs to be improved can include:

  • Repeated twisting or wrenching of muscles
  • Gradual worsening of posture – the appearance of the dreaded ‘dowager’s hump’
  • Joint pain caused by tight muscles on one side, pulling joints out of place. This is particularly common in the knee joint.
  • Not being able to assume positions that used to be comfortable
  • Pins and needles, especially in the arms. Note that this should always be checked by a doctor as it is also a symptom of other problems, but stiffness in the neck causing a trapped nerve in certain positions is a common problem.

Naturally for any worrying symptoms, your first stop should be your GP to check that there is nothing more serious wrong. If not, all of these nagging problems can be due to stiff muscles, and can be greatly improved with some stretching exercises. So how does stretching work as a part of fitness, and what techniques should be used?

Traditionally exercise sessions began with stretching, but both studies and experience are now showing that this is the wrong approach. Not only does stretching cold muscles risk injury, but there is now evidence that it can actually reduce athletic performance. Stretches belong at the end of a workout of exercise session, where muscles are warm and blood flow is good.

Stretches can be either dynamic (meaning that they involve movement) or static (‘stretch and hold’).

Dynamic stretching uses controlled motion to take your muscles to the limits of their range of movement, and to extend this range gradually. The words ‘controlled’ and ‘gradually’ are extremely important.  Dynamic stretching is not the same as the aptly-named ‘ballistic stretching’. This means using a bouncing motion to attempt to force muscles to stretch further. This is long discredited and can cause injury – it is your doctor who will ‘go ballistic’ if you try this.

Static stretching involves stretching to the maximum point that is possible, and holding that position against resistance. This can be provided by a solid object, another part of the body or a partner. Static stretches are excellent for use at the end of a workout, helping to relax and ease tired muscles. Most people will be familiar with the sequence of stretches, which works pairs of opposing muscles. The stretches used are generally along these lines:

  • Arm and shoulder stretches, working triceps and biceps and ensuring that shoulders are fully mobile
  • Leg stretches: the opposing pair of hamstrings and quadriceps, either in a posed stretch or using the resistance of a wall
  • Stomach and back stretches, usually carried out lying down on a mat. These can be very relaxing - every fitness instructor will have a tale of having to wake up a client who has dozed off after a good workout!

With all stretches, pay attention to the instructor (whether a real person or on a DVD) and never force yourself into positions that hurt. You should always feel no more than a gentle stretch which should be quite pleasant.