Flexibility Fitness: the ABCs of Stretching

Woman stretching in bridge pose

The importance of flexibility is often underestimated. Unsurprisingly, flexibility fitness tends to slide pretty low on most people’s list of fitness priorities. We get obsessed with activities which yield more visible results, be it weight loss or toned muscles. But stretching and working on your overall bodily mobility should be an integral part of your workout routine.

Why are stretching and flexibility important?

Our muscles, just like every other part of our body, are affected by age. As we get older, they tend to grow smaller, weaker and stiffer. The loss of elasticity impacts our posture, joints, and strength. It can also lead to injuries and pain. Flexibility is our body’s ability to exercise its full range of motion. Sure, you might not see the benefits of being able to put your leg behind your head, but that’s not really the point. Extreme flexibility is not exactly what you should be aiming for. Instead, think of flexibility as an aspect of your overall mobility – your ability to perform a wide range of functional movements. Apart from flexibility, mobility comprises balance, coordination, and strength.

The first step

Prepping your muscles for exercise is a step you should never skip. Invest in a foam roller – that’s how you’ll be starting and finishing every workout session. The massage will help prep your muscles while breaking any knots and tension points. It should cover all of your main muscles, for instance quads, calves, and lats. If you can, have a warm shower or bath before you start your routine – this will loosen up the muscles and make them more pliable. Don’t be lazy after your workout – take the time for another session with the foam roller. This post-workout massage will speed up the recovery process and help flush out the waste products from your muscles.

How to stretch properly

Research shows that your pre-workout stretching session should be dynamic, while the post-workout one should be static. Why is that? Well, static stretching tends to make the muscles momentarily slightly weaker, which is not optimal if you are, for instance, intending to lift weights. The dynamic stretching round should include a couple of sets of 10-20 reps of squats, push-ups, lunges and similar exercises. When you’re done, you should be feeling warmed up and ready to go.

Static stretching – the one where you attempt to hold a pose – should be saved for afterwards. When you are stretching, it’s important to remember that it should be a pleasant activity. You should normally feel a mild pulling sensation that feels good. If the pose feels downright painful, you’re overdoing it. Never rush your stretch – give the muscles time to ease into a pose gradually. Once you’re there – hold the stretch for half a minute if you can, to give the muscles time to accommodate.

Additional activities

Relaxation is just as important a step towards flexibility as stretching. It will help keep your muscles long and relaxed by releasing tension. Incorporate a soothing activity into your workout regimen. Most people opt for yoga, but tai chi works too, or even just a walk. Letting go of stress and clearing your mind will help you maintain both physical and mental health. Stress and muscle tightness are a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum, but whatever came first, some stretching and a light soothing activity should help alleviate both. If you can, have a proper massage once a month in addition to your work with the foam roller, to enhance its effects.