This article was first published in The Hindu on 2nd October 2010.
I see people completing their workout routines and rushing through a few cursory stretches; mainly to appease the trainer, mind elsewhere, in a hurry to get going. Their flexibility does not get any better; they can still barely bend forward to reach for their thighs leave alone their toes, but they see no reason to waste time toiling with “stretches’. They have more important things to do, their cardio, so they can burn an indecent number of calories, push as much weight as they can to gain that well sculpted physique. Flexibility? Yes, well, let’s be done with it as quickly as possible!
One couldn’t be more mistaken. An inflexible muscle is more prone to injury and cannot perform as well as it should. Good quality muscle is supple, strong AND flexible.
Flexibility is the corner stone of fitness along with Cardio and Strength. For some reason however, it has always been treated with some disdain, considered an annoying waste of time. “I am just NOT flexible” is the lament that is often heard. Of course not, you have delegated flexibility to a disrespectable distance in the far recesses of your armoire of fitness. Perhaps because it somehow seems a redundant activity that doesn’t appear to really DO anything. The effects of improved flexibility however are subtle and enviable. Better posture, greater and more fluid mobility, grace of movement, symmetry and aesthetics.
The management of muscle imbalances has to take into account the inflexibility of certain muscles and excess tightness of antagonists. For instance the tight, obstinate chest muscles in conjunction with the over stretched and weak upper back muscles lead to the ungainly slouch of the upper back – the ‘head and neck forward syndrome’. The internal rotators of the shoulders may be tighter than the eternal rotators, drawing in the shoulders causing one to appear stooped (and lacking in confidence). The simple act of stretching the chest muscles, strengthening the back and the Abductors, while stretching the Adductors of the shoulders enhances one’s appearance and bearing beyond belief.
Runners suffer from tight hamstrings, hip flexors and deep muscles of the pelvis known as the pyriformis. These have to be consciously and meticulously worked on over a period of time using a series of stretches thereby improving their run. Hamstring injury is also common when the muscle is tight as it often is, and of course this sets one back months before one can get back to training again.
If you are accustomed to repeating a particular kind of activity all the time, a step class, incline walking, or Kick boxing for instance, you can be sure of developing muscle imbalances unless checked early with extensive balanced stretching and strengthening routines. So what do you do?
Don’t relegate flexibility to the back burner and promise yourself you will stretch over the weekend. It has to be done everyday. Allot a couple of days a week to a longer, more extensive stretch routine. Over a period of time your flexibility will improve. You will be consciously better balanced and have more elegant posture. On the rest of the days a few minutes of stretching after a warm up and after the cool down will help keep the muscles flexible.
Don’t stretch cold muscles. Perform some dynamic stretches after a warm up. Avoid bouncing (ballistic) movements while stretching. A dynamic stretch on the other hand is a smooth flowing move taken to the completion of the stretch and repeated several times keeping the muscles warm and heart rate slightly elevated. Proceed with the rest of the workout and follow up with extensive static stretches after your workout.
Each muscle can be stretched using a specific movement. Learn these moves and ensure that they are done properly once again to avoid injury with ‘over stretching’. A stretch has to be carried out to a point of the sensation of the stretch and not pain. More is not always better.
Assisted stretches with a trainer or partner need to be performed with caution as sometimes the partner has no way of determining how much is too much and may injure the muscle. Assisted stretching is helpful however so if you have a friend or knowledgeable trainer, he/she can help you with your stretches.
One of the most important benefits of regular stretching is the capacity to remain flexible with age. Certain muscles like the hamstrings and low back muscles tend to become tight and may lead to back ache and discomfort that so commonly plagues older people. As one ages, muscles become less elastic. This inflexibility can lead to difficulty in performing simple tasks like turning around, reaching up for something on high shelf and so on. Continuing to stretch daily will prevent this unfortunate turn of events, keeping you independent, self-confident and agile.
Most of us rush through a frenzied workout after a comparably stressful day. There is no time to stretch. You jump off the treadmill, hit the ground running, go through the motions of a weight routine and then rush home to attend to dinner. Anyone who has done a good stretch workout will tell you just how good it feels. The tensions release, a sense of lightness and warmth prevail, a deep sense of calm envelops you. One can even fall asleep after a stretch, relaxation and breathing routine.