Your pumped; finally, you’ve made the commitment to exercise. You’re ready to hit the treadmill and get your 30 minutes over with ASAP. But hold on, what about that pesky warmup and cool down ‘they’ say you should do . . . who has the time or patience? Well, according to the Mayo Clinic, you should make the time.
Stretching, is in essence, a positive catalyst for improving flexibility, range of motion in joints, and performance. It also creates an increase of blood flow to muscles while decreasing the risk of injury. (1)
The inclination to stretch is nothing new. “In nature stretching is as natural as can be. All animals stretch. They do this to by instinct. It is important for them as they must keep their bodies in a constant state of alert.” (2)
Just like our animal friends who love a satisfying back arching stretch after a restful sleep, we are instinctively compelled to stretch; lengthening muscle fibers so our bodies are limber and ready for activity. However, unlike animals, we don’t need to keep our bodies in a constant state of readiness for survival, unless dashing into a Starbucks for a Decafe, Double, Grande, 2 pump vanilla, Non-fat, Extra Hot, latte counts.
Living in this technological age, we aren’t necessarily chopping wood or harvesting crops in order to survive a bitterly cold winter. That being said, healthy eating and regular exercise are essential if we want our survival on this earth to be a pleasing experience, and stretching is part of the equation.
Now that we know it’s instinctive and necessary, let’s get a little scientific about what a muscle is made up of so we can understand the importance of stretching them?
Simply put, and I am paraphrasing, “The muscle is composed of many strands of tissue called fascicle. From there, each fascicle is composed of fasciculi which are bundles of muscle fibers, which are composed of thread-like myofybrils, which are composed of millions of bands laid end-to-end called sarcomeres, which are made up of overlapping thick and thin filaments called myofilaments, which are made up of contractile proteins, primarily actin and myosin.”(3)
Wow. . . lots of stuff going on there; no wonder we need to stretch those muscles. Basically, all that stuff that makes up our muscle structure can contract, relax, and elongate. When we stretch, the muscle fiber is pulled out to its full length sarcomere by sarcomere. (4) And there it is; ‘Houston’, we have now achieved a full stretch and we’re better for it.
There are multiple types of stretches, but let’s define the two most popular forms – dynamic and static.
“Dynamic stretching is a type of sports fitness routine in which momentum and active muscular effort are used to stretch and the end position is not held. A walking lunge is a dynamic stretch.” (5) Basically, dynamic stretches involve motion.
“Static stretching consists of stretching a muscle (or group of muscles) to its farthest point and then maintaining or holding that position.”(6) Basically, static stretches involve no motion.
So, which type of stretch do you do pre-workout and which do you do post- workout for maximum benefit?
“You should warm up by doing dynamic stretches, which are like your workout but at a lower intensity. A good warm-up before a run could be a brisk walk, walking lunges, leg swings, high steps, or “butt kicks” (slowly jogging forward while kicking toward your rear end).”(7)
And what about static stretches; “Everyone is more flexible after exercise, because you’ve increased the circulation to those muscles and joints and you’ve been moving them. If you do static stretches, you’ll get the most benefit from them now,” says Lynn Millar, PhD., physical therapist and professor at Winston-Salem State University. (7)
“For a general fitness program, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching for most individuals that is preceded by an active warm-up, at least 2 to 3 days per week. Each stretch should be held 15 to 30 seconds and repeated 2 to 4 times.” (8)
To add a little reality to this discussion, this is my mantra for warm up and cool down: I use a more dynamic approach pre-workout because I think my muscles are too tight to jump right into a static stretch, which could cause injury. I only warm up dynamically for about 2 minutes prior to cardio, but my research tells me I may want to increase my warm up time.
Post-cardio, I definitely keep moving by jogging in place, doing jumping jacks, and dynamic stretches, for an additional 2 to 5 minutes, then move into dynamic/static stretch combos, and finally static stretches woven in between strength training sets, squats, abs (floor and ball exercises), pushups etc. I want my heart rate to come down gradually because I’m only done with the cardio portion of my workout, and I have more to do. Diving right into a full array of static stretches, I feel, would bring my body to an abrupt halt. I view the entire exercise experience as a whole movement with different intervals of intensity; slow ramp up, intense, then steady ramp down.
One very important factor in cooling down is understanding blood pooling. If you abruptly stop exercise without the jog in place etc., you may experience dizziness and more harrowing, the formation of blood clots. Let’s get a little scientific again, because this is extremely important!
Basically, during exercise, blood is circulated to the active muscle tissue and then back to the heart. Because muscles contract, they work against gravity and help that blood fight the uphill battle from the lower extremities back to the heart, which is called venous return. When you stop a cardio exercise too abruptly, the muscles are no longer contracting and the blood is not flowing back to the heart as it needs to. It hangs out in your lower extremities and can cause you not only to feel dizzy, but can contribute to the formation of blood clots – not good!
So, simply move after your cardio and cool down those active muscles gradually. Oh, and as silly as it sounds, be sure to breathe through all stretching movements.
“The purpose of a brief cool-down after cardiovascular exercise is to slowly return your heart to its resting state. Always engage in a five- to 10- minute cool-down of light cardiovascular exercise such as walking or cycling on a stationary bike. (9)
Besides typical static stretches, incorporating yoga movements into your stretching routine can really compliment your overall workout. “Yoga poses stretch your muscles and increase your range of motion. With regular practice, they’ll improve your flexibility.” (10) How can you argue with an exercise program that has been around for over 5,000 years. It’s good for mind and body.
So, now we are informed; stretching is good! Now it’s time to take matters into your own hands by building a personalized stretching regimen that is based on your particular needs. Exhaust the options by checking out videos, websites, television shows, and magazines for new dynamic and static stretch ideas, as well as yoga poses to mix in with what you may already be doing.
Lastly, be patient with your body. Not only does it need a proper warm-up and cool-down before and after exercise, it also needs you to not rush through the process of stretching, expecting immediate results for areas that are tight or may have already been compromised. And by all means, don’t bounce through a stretch; it’s an unnecessary risk for injury.
Without a doubt, flexibility declines with age, but there is something we can do about it. Making the time to stretch is proven to enhance flexibility, which means you feel better whether you are recovering after a cardio workout, running to Starbucks for a latte, or reclining on the couch to watch a movie. Be patient, be vigilant, and like our feline friends, enjoy the worth of a good stretch.
*When researching stretches, look carefully at description and image to make sure you are doing the stretch correctly. Try to incorporate various stretches for different parts of the body, as well as particular stretches for areas that you find more problematic.