A good exercise program focuses on three elements- strength, stamina and suppleness. Finding a level that works for you is imperative. Start slow, perform each well, and progress as tolerated. If it hurts one day, don’t stop. Just do a slower, smaller stretch. You may be surprised how that warms up the area and allows for a full stretch in time. If not, you’ve still mobilized all parts.
If we don’t use it we’ll lose it. If I put your finger in a splint for a month you’d probably never bend it again. Not because it was damaged, but because it was immobile for so long. Even after a long car drive, it takes a moment to stretch tired, inactive muscles. Imagine what years of inactivity can do.
A regular stretching program is as integral to good health as diet, weight control and exercise. It doesn’t require a fancy gym or specific equipment. Anyone can stretch and promote better conditioning, fitness and well being. No matter your age or fitness level.
*Don’t stretch if you have an injury or it causes chronic pain. Check with your provider first. It may be best to have supervision (physical therapy) before starting a home program.
*Take it slow. Don’t push beyond feeling a tension in the muscle. Pain is not the goal. If it hurts you’ve gone too far.
*Don’t overdo. Stretching, like any other form of exercise, requires giving the area time to recover. Stretch each muscle group just once a day.
*Don’t bounce. This was encouraged years ago as increasing range of motion and flexibility. We now know this extra force can push muscles and tendons too far, risking tearing and injury.
* Maintain proper posture and form. As with any exercise program, stretching improperly or with poor form can result in injury or pain. Make sure you’re stable, safe and performing each stretch as recommended.
* Use proper techniques. Just a few degrees in the wrong direction can mean the difference between stretching the muscle versus pulling on the joint and causing injury or harm. Feel the stretch in the muscle, not the joint. When I first started bicep curls I sat in a chair with my arm on a table. That way I could focus on only moving at the elbow without twisting my forearm or recruiting my upper body.
*Strength and control are key. Don’t expect big changes overnight. Flexibility doesn’t mean a thing if underlying strength and control aren’t established. Gradual and safe progression that can be maintained and improved upon is the goal.
*Stop if it hurts. No pain no gain does not apply. If pain continues, apply ice and rest. If it resolves but reoccurs whenever you attempt that specific stretch seek professional advice. It may be due to your technique or an underlying issue.
How to get started
*Warm up first. Even before stretching you should warm up the body. Jumping in cold can cause injuries. Just start moving in a concerted, focused way (walk in place, twist, bend, shake it up). Anything that gets the body moving and circulating blood to the extremities.
*Set aside a few minutes in the day specifically for stretching. Commit to 5- 10 minutes. That will allow you to focus on particular muscle groups. Hold each stretch for at least 10 seconds and build to 30 – 45 seconds.
*Muscles are incredibly pliable, they can stretch up to 1 1/2 times their original length. But tendons can be damaged when pushed just 4 % beyond their resting shape. That’s why it’s important to stretch them slowly and consistently.
*Don’t forget to breath. Take long slow breaths in an out while stretching. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This calms the mind and body while increasing oxygen flow.
* Strive for symmetry. Both sides are required when performing any action. When one is stronger, or weaker, it sets us up for pain or injury. Work both sides, but focus on encouraging the weaker side to progress as far as possible. Then stretch daily to maintain all you’ve acquired.
* Focus on major muscle groups that take the brunt of the work throughout the day – spine, neck, shoulders, hips, thighs, calves. You’ll be able to function better when they are strong and flexible.
*Mix it up. Change up the pattern or type of exercises. Add movement like tai chi or yoga for an added bonus.
*Practice makes perfect. Commit to a regular routine. Stretching will promote stronger, longer, more flexible muscles that withstand the day’s activities better. In time, muscle memory will be established and this state will become your baseline.
I know it sounds counter intuitive when you’re hurting, but stretching will improve your strength, mobility and function while lessening pain. Whatever you choose to do, just get started and keep it up every day. I promise, in time, you’ll see improvements that will make every day activities easier to perform.