Think flexibility is just for yogis? Nope. Think again. We’ve talked about how yoga can work wonders for athletes, so it seems only logical that increased flexibility is a must for athletes and fitness fans alike.
But what kind of stretches should you be doing? How often should you do them? Is stretching only for warming up and cooling down after exercise? Let’s break down the a, b, c’s of improved flexibility thanks to regular stretching.
Why Does Flexibility Matter?
Full confession: flexibility isn’t usually the first thing on the mind for most of us. When you think about hitting peak physical performance, you might think about training plans or nutrition. But flexibility definitely should be on that list.
Don’t write off the importance of flexibility. From injury prevention to improved posture, there’s probably no such thing as being too flexible. Increased flexibility also helps your athletic performance by getting your muscles aligned and primed for peak performance. Stretching also helps warm up your joints by getting the blood moving. This doesn’t just reduce your risk of injury, it also helps make sure you get the full range of motion out of all those moving parts.
Stretching isn’t just for warming up or cooling down, either. In fact, some studies show that stretching after you’ve warmed up a bit already (like a brisk walk or light jog) helps you get the most out of your stretches.
While stretches might seem simple, there are some tips that you should keep in mind:
- Don’t expect to become as flexible as a ballerina overnight. This is especially true if you’ve been working on building muscle mass. As you build out your muscles, they have a tendency to become tight and “close up”. Remember, it’s more about progress than perfection.
- While performing a stretch, don’t “bounce”. Extend the stretch to a comfortable point and hold for about 30 seconds. You shouldn’t be feeling pain when you stretch. If you do, you’re doing it wrong.
- Stretching once in a while won’t do much for you. Don’t get it twisted – sometimes is better than never. But in order to get the most out of your stretching, you’ll need to do it at least two to three times per week. More, if you’re feeling ambitious.
Now, let’s check out some of our favorite stretching exercises to help get you that increased flexibility you (probably) need.
Stress-Relieving Stretches for Increased Flexibility
Sit on the floor with one leg extended straight out in front of you. Slowly reach both hands towards your toes. If you’re just getting into stretching, don’t be disappointed if you can’t reach your toes yet. You’ll get there with time. Hold for ten seconds, release, and repeat four times on each leg.
Yeah, yeah, we know. This one’s technically a yoga move. But don’t discredit it just because of that. This stretch helps open up multiple groups of muscles, so consider it a multitasker. You’ll target the hamstrings, hips, and calves as you progress through this dynamic stretch. Start by getting on your hands and knees on the floor. Then (slowly) raise your hips into the air and straighten out your legs as much as you can while still maintaining contact between your hands and the floor. Hold for ten seconds, return to your hands and knees, and repeat five times.
If you feel like your hips have been holding you back, then you should seriously consider making the glute bridge stretch a regular part of your stretching routine. Start by lying on your back on the floor with your knees bent, and feet and arms flat on the floor – kind of like you do when you’re getting ready to crunch it out. Then slowly raise your hips up towards the ceiling. If you can, try to create a straight line with your midsection, as if a string was pulling you upwards by your belly button. Use your glute (i.e. butt) muscles to really push your hips up towards the ceiling.
Upper body feeling a little tight? The lying pectoral stretch targets your shoulders and your chest, which is perfect for helping you unwind on heavy upper body days. Start by lying on your side on the floor. Use your top arm to lift your upper body off the ground slightly so you can slip your lower arm behind your back, forming a “T” shape with your upper body. Extend the knee of your top leg out to help create tension as you rotate your body towards your back. As you practice this more, you might notice that you’ll be able to roll further into the stretch.
No, not eye rolls. Head rolls. They seem simple, but they’re so effective. Plus, they’re great after you’ve been hunched over all day at work. You can either sit or stand for this stretch. Start by dropping your chin to your chest and holding for a few seconds. Then, rotate your head until your ear is on your shoulder. Hold for a few seconds. Repeat this process in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Don’t forget – these rolls should be slow rolls (and easy like Sunday morning.) Repeat at least four times on each side, but you can also do it until your stress melts away.
Stretching is about more than warming up – it’s about making sure your muscles can handle all that you put them through. Plus, stretching is a great way to de-stress at the end of the day. It only takes a few minutes a day to work your way towards increased flexibility and improved athletic performance thanks to yogi-approved stretching.