Incorporating Stretching Into Your Exercise Regimen

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

One of the most common fitness questions people have is whether to stretch before or after their exercise program. Stretching is an important component of any exercise routine. It can help improve flexibility and decrease your risk of injury. How do you know if you need to improve your flexibility. Reach down and touch your toes. Find that difficult? Chances are you need more stretching.

Best Times To Stretch

You can stretch before and after your workout to realize the best benefits. Stretching before you work out can provide your body a minimal warm up. Before you warm up you don’t want to engage in a lengthy stretching session. Save this for after you work out. Stretching is much more likely to benefit you after your work out when your muscles are more flexible and less prone to injury anyway. Why? While you work out you pump blood into your muscles. This helps warm them and improves their elasticity.

Many people experience muscle tightness without realizing it. The most common tight areas include the lower back, hamstrings and calves. You should stretch all of these muscles after working out, as chances are you engaged all of them during your workout. How often should you stretch? Every day if you want to realize the largest benefits.

Here are some great stretches you can try to improve your flexibility and decrease your risk for injury.

  • Inner-Thighs – To stretch your inner thighs, sit on the floor. Bend your knees like you are going to sit cross legged, only draw your feet together so the soles of your feet touch. You should look like you are sitting in a modified Indian or meditation pose. Lower your upper body toward the floor in front of your feet as far as you can. You can also press down lightly on your inner thighs. Press your thighs toward the ground as far as they will go but not far enough to cause pain.
  • Leg Stretch – Sit on the floor and extend your left leg straight. Your right leg should be tucked against your body. Bend your body forward over your left leg until you feel a gentle pulling. Then repeat on the right side.
  • Quad Stretch – Stand next to something you can grab for support. Lift your right leg by pulling your foot behind you. You should look like a stork. Gently grab your right heel and stretch your quad. Lower your leg to the ground and repeat.
  • Lower Back Stretch – Lie on your back. Bend your knees but keep your feet flat on the floor. Bring one knee to your chest using your hands. Hold this position release and repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Lower Back – Lie on your back. Bend both knees keeping your feet flat on the floor. Then gently lower your knees to the left side of your body. Raise back to the middle position and rotate to the opposite side.
  • Hamstrings and Calves – Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Your toes should point forward. Bend down and touch your hands to the ground between your legs. If you can place your palms flat on the ground. Slowly raise and repeat.
  • Calf Stretch – Stand about 1 ½ feet from the wall. Keeping your legs together and facing the wall, lean against the wall by placing your palms flat against the wall. Then gently bend one knee slightly in so until you feel a stretch in the back of the opposite calf. Switch legs and repeat.

When Tight Muscles Are A Problem

Occasionally muscles and tendons can be too tight causing may health problems. Back pain and injuries sometimes result from overly tight muscles. I used to walk on my toes all the time not because I thought it was fun, but because my calf muscles were so tight it was more comfortable to walk that way than flat on the ground. You’d be surprised how many women walk around in high heels with tight calf muscles.

Tight calf muscles and other tight muscles are problematic because they can result in back pain. If you think you might have overly tight muscles you may need to see a physical therapist or sports therapist to help resolve the problem. A physical therapist can recommend a proper series of stretches to gradually restore your flexibility and increase your range of motion. Tight tendons can also spell trouble for athletes, increasing their risk of injury while competing or training. Chronic training, poor posture, sitting at a desk most of the day, wearing high heeled shoes… all of these are habits that can result in overly tight muscles.

Remember it only takes a few minutes every day to stretch. You can do it while you watch TV or just before you go to bed. It’s far better to take ten minutes to stretch than to spend weeks in therapy correcting chronic tension problems resulting from tight muscles. The more you stretch, the better your overall health and well being.