Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stretching Your Way to Fitness

Stretching has always been believed to be beneficial for the body. As far back as 2 BC in China, philosophical treatises were written exalting the virtues of stretching: it loosens the joints and facilitates the flow of blood and qi (according to Chinese Philosophy, qi is the circulating life energy present in everybody); strengthens ligaments and tendons and indirectly the bones; and promotes mental and physical relaxation. Modern studies on stretching verify these claims and more. Stretching improves physical well-being, enhances ones range of motion, reduces muscle soreness and tension after athletic activities, reduces menstrual pain in females, and makes the muscles more flexible.

Stretching must be a component of your warm-up and cool-down exercises. Stretching lengthens the muscles and improves flexibility and range of motion, facilitating the easy execution of different movements required in athletic activities.

There are different kinds of stretching (active stretching, isometric stretching, ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching, passive stretching, PNF stretching, and static stretching). Static stretching is the most ideal type of stretching to achieve the intended results of warm-up and cool-down exercises. This type of stretching promotes short-term and long-term flexibility. Short-term flexibility is what the muscles need for the workout that they are going to get from the anticipated athletic activity. Long-term flexibility refers to the general ability of the muscles to execute a wider range of motion.

Here are some static stretching exercises you can teach your students. These exercises should be done in the order that they appear here:

Upper Back Stretch
1. Stand tall, feet apart, slightly wider than shoulder-width, knees slightly bent.
2. Interlock the fingers and push the hands as far away from the chest as possible, allowing the upper back to relax.
3. The stretch should be felt between the shoulder blades.

Abdominal and Lower Back Muscles
1. Lie face down on the ground.
2. Lift the body off the ground so that it is supported only by the forearms and toes. The elbows should be on the ground almost directly below the shoulders. The forearms and hands should rest on the ground, pointed straight ahead, toes and feet should be shoulder-width apart and the head in line with the spine.
3. Gently contract the muscles on the buttocks. Hold for 10 seconds.
4. Lift the right arm off the ground, straighten and point it straight ahead, holding it in the air for 10 seconds.
5. Return to the starting position.
6. Repeat with the left arm.
7. Return to starting position.
8. Lift the right leg off the ground and hold it for 10 seconds (keep back straight).
9. Return to starting position.
10. Repeat with left leg.
11. Return to starting position.
12. Lift the right arm and left leg simultaneously and hold them in position for 10 seconds.
13. Return to starting position.
14. Lift the left arm and right leg simultaneously and hold them in position for 10 seconds.
15. Return to the starting position.

Side Bends
1. Stand tall, feet apart, slightly wider than shoulder-width, knees slightly bent, hands resting on the hips.
2. Bend slowly to one side, come back to the vertical position and then bend to the other side. Do not lean forward or backward.

Neck Stretch
1. Sit or stand with arms hanging loosely at the sides.
2. For the sides of the neck, turn or tilt the head to one side, then the other.
3. Hold each side for five seconds.
4. Repeat up to three times.
5. For the back of the neck, gently tilt head forward.
6. Hold for five seconds.
7. Repeat up to three times.

Chest Stretch
1. Stand tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
2. Hold the arms out to the side parallel with the ground and the palms of the hand facing forward.
3. Stretch the arms back as far as possible. The stretch should be felt across the chest.

Groin Stretch
1. Sit with tall posture.
2. Ease both feet up towards the body and place the soles of the feet together, allowing the knees to come up and out to the side.
3. Rest the hands on the lower legs or ankles and ease both knees towards the ground. The stretch should be felt in the inside of the thighs and groin.

Hip and Thigh Stretch
1. Stand tall with the feet approximately two shoulder widths apart.
2. Turn the feet and face to the right.
3. Bend the right leg so that the right thigh is parallel with the ground and the right lower leg is vertical.
4. Gradually lower the body.
5. Keep the back straight and use the arms to balance.
6. The stretch should be felt along the front of the left thigh and along the hamstrings of the right leg.
7. Repeat by turning and facing to the left.

Quadriceps Stretch
1. Lie face down on the floor, resting the forehead on the right hand.
2. Press the hips firmly into the floor and bring the left foot up towards the buttocks.
3. Take hold of the left foot with the left hand and ease the foot closer to the buttocks.
4. Repeat with the right leg.
The stretch should be felt along the front of the thigh

Calf Stretch
1. Stand tall with one leg in front of the other, hands flat and at shoulder height against a wall.
2. Ease the back leg further away from the wall, keeping it straight and press the heel firmly onto the floor.
3. Keep the hips facing the wall and the rear leg and spine in a straight line.
4. The stretch should be felt in the calf of the rear leg.
5. Repeat with the other leg.

Hamstring Stretch
1. Sit on the ground with both legs straight out in front of the body.
2. Bend the left leg and place the sole of the left foot alongside the knee of the right leg.
3. Allow the left leg to lie relaxed on the ground.
4. Bend forward keeping the back straight.
5. The stretch should be felt in the hamstring of the right leg.
6. Repeat with the other leg.

But before teaching these exercises to your students or doing them yourself, here are some things to remember when doing stretching exercises.

1. Time to stretch. Do stretching exercises only after a warm-up or a cool-down. This will ensure that you will not injure yourself. The best time to do stretching is when the muscles are all warmed-up. This minimizes the possibility of injury. It is during this time when the muscles are more elastic and warmer. It is also important to remember that stretching alone cannot be considered a warm-up exercise.

2. Type of stretches. Doing the inappropriate type of stretching may be counterproductive. What you want to achieve with stretching during warm-up is “an increased awareness, improved coordination, improved elasticity and contractibility of muscles, and a greater efficiency of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.” The other kinds of stretches will not contribute to these goals. Instead they may tire the muscles even before the actual athletic activity.

3. Risky stretches. There are certain stretches such as the yoga plough (this is where you lie down and try to touch your ears with your knees), the traditional hurdler’s stretch (more popularly known as a split), or any kind of stretching where you hang upside down that are considered to be risky. You may end up injuring yourself or your students doing these stretches.

4. Hold the stretch. Crucial to stretching is the length of time you hold the stretch. For younger people, 7 to 10 seconds is recommended. For adults, 20 seconds is enough. Static stretches should be done in 2 to 5 repetitions.

5. Breathe while stretching. Observe proper breathing to maximize the benefits of stretching. Take slow, relaxed breaths and exhale when the muscles are stretched. Inhale slowly through the nose, expand the abdomen, hold the breath for a second, and then exhale slowly through the mouth.

6. Stretch in order. Stretch the different muscle groups in proper order. Stretching exercises stretch particular target muscles and the supporting muscles as well. The supporting muscles which are not the target for a particular exercise are warmed up, preparing them for the exercise for which they are the target. A warmed-up muscle is always ensured of a good stretch.

7. Pain and stretching. Do not continue stretching exercises, or any kind of athletic activity for that matter, if you experience any pain or discomfort. The pain may be brought about by a serious injury which should be diagnosed and treated first before engaging in any athletic activity again.

8. Sore muscles after stretching. The muscles of any person who is inactive or not used to exercise or even an athlete who worked-out in a level of difficulty higher than usual will become sore after stretching. Normally, stretching should not leave the muscles sore if done properly. If it does, you might have overstretched yourself. Muscles get sore if they are exposed to an extraordinary level of activity or if they are stretched without warm-up. To avoid overstretching, start with low intensity stretches first and work your way up when your muscles get used to the activity and make sure you do it after warm-up.

Sources: (14 July 2005) (14 July 2005) (14 July 2005)

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