Your Personal Trainer:
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
No, I’m not talking about your choice of exercise partner! I’m referring to the proper way to stretch—without jerking. Stretching should be done slowly and smoothly but, before I talk about stretching and where it fits into your workout, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about warming up and stretching that I’ve come across over my years in the exercise field.
Many people think that warm-ups and stretches are the same thing and that you “stretch to warm-up.” Not so. It’s the other way around—you should warm-up to stretch. Why? Warming up prepares your body—your muscles, your joints, your heart and your lungs—for the demands of your work-out. If you are going for a brisk walk, your warm-up should be rhythmic, low intensity movements similar to what you plan to do, only slower—kind of a sampling of movements done at half-time. The same goes for running or swimming or cycling. Warm-up the muscles that you plan to use. Get them ready for what they are going to do for five or ten minutes, then begin your work-out.
It is after your walk, run, bike ride or swim that it is safer to stretch because your muscles are warm, the blood flow to those muscles is at its maximum and, as such, you will have a better range of motion and flexibility. Why should stretches be done slowly and smoothly without bouncing? Bouncing or jerky movements while a muscle is stretched can have an opposite and even harmful effect on future flexibility or your ability to stretch.
Let me give you an example of a stretch that I often see done incorrectly. It’s called the runner’s stretch. It’s done by leaning up against a wall, tree, or telephone pole with one leg bent at the knee in front of you and the other leg straight at the knee behind you with your heel on the ground. It is designed to stretch the calf of the back leg and should be held steady for ten to thirty seconds without bouncing or jerking. Stretching with a bounce or jerk can cause small tears in the muscles and stress the joint around that muscle. Little tears can lead to scar tissue which, as it heals, can result in a tightening of the muscle and less flexibility in the future. That’s why it’s important to warm up your muscles before you stretch, and then when you do stretch, do it slowly, smoothly and gently.
In this season of giving, take time out for yourself with some regular exercise. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just regular, a little something every day or every other day. It is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. It really will make everything you do easier. It will put a spring in your step, a smile on your face and maybe, at this most wonderful time of the year, it might even put a song in your heart. Remember that classic children’s story about the night before Christmas? Santa filled all the stockings then he “turned with a jerk.” That’s okay for Santa (even though Santa is risking a serious back injury!) but I know you’ll be more careful now that you know that you should “never exercise with a jerk.”
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!