I've mentioned this a few times in a variety of different ways, but I have often gotten comments and questions about flexibility. The secret? Stretch. No really. Stretch. After every work out. It's super simple, it only takes about 5-10 minutes and you can do it wherever and whenever you want. At the gym? Sure! Watching TV? Of course (more on that later)! To me, stretching is one of the three legs of the perfect fitness stool (the other two being cardio and strength training). Stretching is great thing to do, especially after exercise, but it's definitely under-appreciated. (If you're interested, that is a picture of me on an OmGym last year... They're awesome, though it depresses me to see how tanned I am when I don't undergo a Canadian winter.) Here are only some of the things stretching and flexibility achieve:
- relaxes your muscles after your body has undergone a lot of stress and impact (under a lot of stress and trauma, your muscles shorten, which will pull your bones out of alignment)
- helps make your muscles long and lean instead of bulky
- allows for smooth flexible joints, tendons, ligaments (which limits joint discomfort, arthritis, etc. later on in life)
- allows for a wider range of movement, which just makes life more comfortable
- encourages good posture
- key to injury prevention (especially for runners!)
- improves physical performance in every way (heh), but seriously, it can make you faster, and it lessens aches and pains
- as my cooldown, it's a great way to physically and mentally wind down, it's actually quite meditative
(much of this info was from here)
Flexibility is obviously also good for your self-esteem. This might sound silly, but I've always found it very feminine to be flexible. I think you can understand that it can do worlds for your confidence if you know you could just bust out the splits or do a high kick if you felt like it.
They key to a good stretch is not to push yourself too hard when you start, because that can actually lead you to tearing your muscles, which is very very bad and will then require lots of recovery time. The way to a good stretch is that the more you do it and the longer you hold it the deeper you can relax into it. You should hold most poses for a least 15-30 seconds, some will be so comfortable you may just want to sit in them for a couple minutes. Heck, Yin Yoga taught me I can be fully contented in a stretch for a good 5 minutes. You'll also notice that flexibility can change from day to day, some days you'll be able to pull off crazy stuff, on others, you'll kind of feel like your 100 years old. Take each day as it is, but don't give yourself the excuse to pass up on a good stretch.
On that note, I've tried to put together what my post-cardio stretching routine looks like. I was a little reluctant to post this since I'm not a huge fan of putting pictures up (especially when I look like a Canadian-pale sweaty red-faced beast), but I realize it might be useful to some. So here goes:
1) Start in butterfly stretch with your back straight (so I just found out that if you google "butterfly position," it has NOTHING to do with exercising...). The goal here is to bring your knees down to the floor. Once you've done that, try to bend over as far as you can. I usually start with my back straight, then get my elbows down, and then try to get my forehead to ground. Again, keep it at your own pace/level.
2) Get into a side stretch, with your legs as far apart as you can, hold that for a bit, and then bend over one leg at a time. The goal is to rotate your torso over the knee and bend from the waist with your back straight. You can both point or flex your feet, pointing is good for the front of your calf, and flexing is a great stretch for the back.
3) For a side stretch, lean over one side with your arm over your head. The right way of doing is not to fall into your knee like stretch #2 but to stretch "over" your leg as much as possible. You can put your other arm against your leg to push your chest towards the sky, or just leave it against the ground. Remember to do both sides!
4) When you're done with that, try to keep your back as straight as possible and lean forward, slowly work your way down to your elbows, and then eventually to the floor. It seems painful to keep your back straight, but that's kind of the point. You should really feel it in your adductors.
5) Follow up with a simple torso rotation stretch to either side. This is great for your spine, and feels as good as what it's doing for you.
6) Next up: one leg extended forward, one leg folded in like the butterfly forward bend (that's a terrible name, I know). I can't explain this very well, so you're better off checking the link. As you fold forward grab onto your flexed foot and lean forward to stretch out your calf first. Then point your toes and lean into your leg to get a full leg and back stretch. Do both sides!
7) Do the same thing with both legs out.
8) Almost done! Lay down on the floor, and it's time for a biiiig stretch. Put your hands overhead and point your toes, pretend like someone is pulling your arms in one direction and your legs in the other.
9) Final side stretch: spine twist! Start with a single leg stretch, then bend your knee and tuck into your chest, your opposite hand on your knee, take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, twist that knee towards the floor while you bring the other arm parallel against the floor. Make sure to keep both your shoulder on the floor (the arm that stretched out might not make it flush against the floor). Your spine, which has by now been well-lubricated, might do some fun popping, snapping, and re-adjusting. I looove this stretch to finish up my routine.
There you go! I know it looks like a lot, but this seriously takes 5-10 minutes depending on how deep into it you want to go. Plus, it's sooo worth while. You'll definitely feel the benefits immediately. No more running soreness or aches, and you're slowly working on your flexibility!
On some days, I'll add some front and side splits practice, but never two days in a row. Now, I reveal to you my favourite stretch of all time. I came up with this when I was a kid and I was really set on being able to do a side split for some of my Chinese Dancing Routines. When I was watching TV one day, I figured that I could practice this during the commercials to feel more productive while ads were playing. I don't know if it did anything that useful, but seeing as how I have greater flexibility now than I did then and I've been doing this for that long, I'll say it helped!
This stretch is definitely not for the faint of heart. I used to do this against our couch, but you can use a wall, or any flat straight surface. By now, I'm managed to be able to stretch completely against the wall, when I started, there was much more a distance between my bum and the wall, so keep working at it slowly and you'll get there! To get into it, start against a wall and slowly slide down in a basic side split. Once you get as far down as you can, slowly rotate your body forward, and get your elbows on the ground. It might hurt like hell, and if it feels like something is about to pop, ease off a bit by scooting forward to the stretch less wide. Do NOT injure yourself trying to do this. If you can use, your elbows for strength to gently push against the wall and feel the stretch even more. As you get better, you'll be able to slide into a deeper side split from the get go and slowly be able to push towards the wall more after. You can also either stay on your elbows, or just lay down on the floor. Either one works. I usually do this for about 2-5 minutes (though you can start smaller), and do stuff like catch up on my favourite blogs on my phone :)
All in all, do try to make stretching a regular part of your routine! Have fun!