Stretching is an activity that is often given little thought and time — but it’s the unsung hero of fitness, making your body more efficient, helping muscles recover after workouts and providing a relaxing activity that will help you feel good long after you’re done. The key to incorporating productive stretching into your regular routine is to plan and execute stretching like you would any other activity, says Yvonne Johnson, a physical therapist and the Program Manager of the Medical Fitness Program at the Center for Health and Healing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
“Many times, stretching or movement as an activity unto itself gets put on the back burner, and people don’t spend enough time or allow enough time in their workout routine to allow for it,” Johnson says. It may help to plan time for stretching, and to know which stretches you’ll be doing ahead of time so you don’t have to think about it as much while you’re in the moment.
Johnson gives five tips to maximize your stretches:
- Incorporate light warm-up and cool-down phases into each workout. “You want to prepare your body for whatever activity you’re going to do by thinking of the movement patterns, and doing them on a lower scale beforehand,” Johnson says. A warm-up is important to get blood flowing to muscles, and a cool-down that includes stretching will help prevent muscle soreness.
- Grade your stretch. When you start to stretch, begin with gentle resistance and stop short of the point of pain or when you feel like you can’t go any further. “Pause there and breathe into it and hold that position for the amount of time it takes for the body to relax and let go,” Johnson says. “You will feel the tension in the muscle release, and you can then stretch a little further. This way, every single stretch provides a maximal increase of range and movement.”
- Add a third dimension to your stretch. Once you’ve hit the maximum stretch point of one stretch — a hamstring or quad stretch, for example — Johnson recommends incorporating a twist of the core or upper body, but this should not create pain (if it does, stop the twist). This can enhance the stretch and open up the hips and pelvis. “The hips and pelvis connect the upper and lower body, so by incorporating this region in a dynamic, functional, three-dimensional stretch, you can reduce back tightness, knee pain, hamstring tightness, and many other pains,” Johnson says. Everyone should proceed with caution when stretching, so know your limits, she adds.
- Lift and “unstack” your body. Yoga and Pilates teach the theory that feet are on the ground and the head is lifting toward the sky, and that theory can help in basic stretching as well. “You really want to lift the body up over the segment that’s being stretched, rather than compressing your body,” Johnson says.
- Breathe and relax. Think of stretching as a gift of time and relaxation that you’re giving back to your body, Johnson recommends. “Even if it’s for just a few minutes, you’ll feel so much better after you work on relaxing your body and mind by concentrating on breathing while stretching,” she says.
To learn more about the Medical Fitness Program at the Center for Health and Healing, visit its website.