People have been doing stretches for hundreds of years. In fact, since around 500AD which was when yoga was transformed from its purely meditative practice to one which also involved the body. This development was called “hatha” yoga.
The transformation continued, and today most yoga is performed in order to enjoy a flexible, strong and healthy body. Pilates has taken the best of this history and together with further knowledge, has continued this process.
You may read about scientific studies which suggest that doing stretches before exercise may not be as effective as others, say and can actually weaken muscles. However, I for one would prefer to go with the evidence of centuries.
Stretching exercises would not have endured, if they didn’t provide benefits – which are many. So make stretches a regular and necessary part of your exercise regime.
What are the benefits?
Flexibility is the major benefit. When we’re flexible, we feel better in our bodies. We can run further because our hamstrings, calves and quads are not so tight, we can bend to pick something up from the floor and we can look over our shoulder if we need to, when driving a car.
Better posture is also a benefit. We can walk taller because our upper body is not curling forward and our leg and hip muscles are not so tight.
Being free of pain is a huge benefit. When neck muscles are tight – it hurts. When our iliotibial band is tight, you may get a shooting pain down your leg. If your problem is back pain and if tight back or leg muscles are the issue, go gently, and be patient, it will take a number of weeks to get results.
How to Stretch:
1. First of all, you need to be patient when you’re stretching. At first it’s a bit boring and you won’t feel (or think) there is any benefit. Stick with it! You’ll be rewarded beyond your expectations.
Take a few deep breaths before you begin and relax your body completely. All the muscles in your body are linked together by way of your joints, so the results are much better, if you relax your whole body so it’s free of tension. Tension exists in the body and also the mind. Try to calm your thoughts as well.
Joseph Pilates would say to “put your mind in your muscle”. That pretty much sums it up. If you are doing a hamstrings stretch, think about that part of your body, and mentally envisage those huge muscles relaxing nicely.
2. Breathe slowly but deeply into your rib cage when you stretch. You’ll get the added benefit of a good dose of oxygen into your muscles.
3. If you stretch before exercise, you will have to warm up first. This will lengthen your muscles in preparation for what you’re about to do. Stretching after will help muscles recover and also help eliminate pain of injury.
4. Hold the stretch for around 20 seconds.
What not to do:
If the stretch is painful, pull back and don’t go so hard, be gentle.
Don’t bounce a stretch with the idea you’ll improve when you’re doing, simply keep the tension on the muscle.
Now you know how to stretch, get going, enjoy and good luck with your stretching regime.