Exercise for Beginners - Why Flexibility is So Important

Why you need to stretch

Woman stretching in front of a window
Woman stretching in front of a window. mapodile/Getty Images

Flexibility is one area of fitness we don't think much about, beyond doing a few stretches before or after a workout. In fact, stretching is the one thing most of us skip as we run out of time, energy and motivation. After all, stretching doesn't burn many calories so why bother?

Being healthy and fit is about more than just burning calories. One reason to make time for stretching is the simple fact that flexible muscles allow your joints to move through a full range of motion.

That full range of motion is how you get the most out of each exercise and, as a result, your workouts. 

How Tight Muscles Can Hurt Your Workouts

Think about what happens when you're tight somewhere in your body.  If you have tight hips, maybe you can't do a proper squat - Hips low to the ground and behind you, abs braced, knees behind the toes. 

If your hips are tight, maybe you can't go down as low or maybe other parts of your body step in to compensate for those tight hips.

That means two things: You're not getting the most that you can from that exercise and, if you keep doing it that way, you can end up with a repetitive stress injury.

The Benefits of Stretching

Stretching doesn't just help you get the most out of your workouts, it can actually help you feel better as you age. In fact, just some of the benefits of stretching include:

  • Improved performance and a reduced risk of injury. One note:  Studies have shown that stretching does not help reduce soreness from your workout, so don't expect it to cure all that ails you.  Still, keeping the amount of flexibility you need to exercise safely is important for your overall health.
  • Reduced muscle soreness and improved posture
  • Less lower back pain
  • Increased blood and nutrients to the tissues
  • Improved coordination
  • Releasing excess muscle tension
  • Promotion the repair of muscles while decreasing stress
  • Aiding in pain-free movement
  • It feels good

 

How to Stretch

Setting up a flexibility program is easy, once you have some exercises and a good idea of how to do them correctly.

Stretching is one of the most gentle ways to work your body and the best thing about it is you can do it anytime, almost anywhere.

You don't need special equipment, just a little time and a solid set of stretches for your entire body.

Some basic guidelines about stretching:

  1. Stretch after your workout - Studies have shown that stretching before exercise doesn't reduce our risk of injury or soreness. In fact, stretching cold muscles could possibly lead to injury. If your goal is to increase flexibility, it's best to stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm and pliable. You can also stretch after a hot bath or a soak in the hot tub. 
  2. Stretch the muscles you worked during your workout - If you don't have much time, focus on your major muscles or the muscles that tend to be the tightest such as the hips, quads, hamstrings, calves and chest.
  3. Don't bounce - When doing static stretches, don't bounce. Hold a comfortable position until you feel a gentle pull on your muscle. It shouldn't hurt and bouncing could cause you to pull a muscle.
  4. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds to get the most flexibility benefits.
  5. Stretch throughout the day - Stretching when you're warm can increase flexibility, but stretching throughout the day can also help you reduce tension and stress.  If you're stuck at work, try these seated stretches for office workers.

    Your Flexibility Workout

    A solid flexibility workout doesn't have to take a long time. In fact, you can get a great total body stretch with just a few basic exercises.

    The exercises below are designed to stretch all the major muscles, especially the muscles that tend to be tighter like the chest, hamstrings, and hips.

    Do these stretches after your workout and throughout the day to promote less stress, more relaxation, and better circulation.

    Flexibility Exercises
    Hamstring Stretch - Standing, take one leg straight out in front of you, resting on the heel. With a flat back, tip from the hips until you feel a stretch in the back of the legs. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
    Calf Stretch - Take one foot back behind you, leg straight. Press the back heel into the floor as you bend the front knee, feeling a stretch in the calf. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
    Chest Stretch - Seated or standing, take the arms behind you, lacing the fingers together if you can (if not just take the arms back as far as you can). Straighten the arms and lift them slightly, feeling a stretch in your chest.
    Triceps Stretch - Seated or standing, taking one arm straight up and bend the elbow, taking the hand behind your head. Use the other hand to gently pull on the elbow, feeling a stretch behind your arm. Hold and repeat on the other side for 30 seconds.
    Shoulder Stretch - Seated or standing, take the right arm straight across the chest so that your fingers are pointing to the left wall. Use your left hand to pull on the arm, stretching the shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
    Hip Stretch - Lying on the floor, cross left foot over right knee. Clasp hands behind right thigh and gently pull the leg in towards you, keeping upper body relaxed. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

     

    Sources:

    Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD004577. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3.

    Stretching Techniques for Alleviating Muscle and Joint Pain (Part 2). ACE Fitness. https://www.acefitness.org/prosourcearticle/5414/stretching-techniques-for-alleviating-muscle. Accessed March 28, 2017.

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