Archive for the ‘stretching’ Category

(Cross-posted to my other blog, The Hungry Runner)

As many of you know, when The Hungry Runner isn’t running or doing something about that hunger, I’m holding down the fort at my stretching instruction business, The Flexibility Coach.  And the truth is, although my main reason for choosing this line of work oh-so-many moons ago is because of my unquenchable interest in designing effective workouts and flexibility solutions for my clients and yoga students, my ongoing motivation is certainly enhanced by my own flexibility needs!  Despite my being extremely flexible, I still fight many of the same challenges as everyone else, and for me, that especially includes the ongoing battle of keeping my calf muscles supple.  The fact that my most popular post on this blog remains my “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” is actually very comforting — at least I know I’m not alone in discovering that running can sure do a number on one’s calves!

But this is one of the reasons I’m constantly experimenting, to discover new tricks and twists to add to my stretching repertoire.  And I just found a good one yesterday, as I typed away at my latest workout plans for the website.  I had gone for an early morning run, and although I had stretched afterward, the length of the run was a bit longer than I’ve been used to lately, and I found myself needing to refresh my stretches throughout the morning.

On a whim, at some point I was walking through a doorway (to get more coffee, if I must be honest), and stopped for a second.  I placed my hands on the doorframe, leaned forward, and pressed my heels down.  Eureka!  A great calf stretch!  No, it didn’t compare with some of my more intense variations — my favorites are still the stairway-based stretches I include in my book, but in a pinch it gave some quick and effective relief.

You might ask why this is different from using a wall?  The difference was, by resting my hands on the doorframe, I could lean as far forward as I needed, even if that meant my head was partly crossing through the doorway into the next room.  Obviously, I would not have that option using a solid wall.

Hopefully, we’ll include this one in our next photo shoot, but in the meantime, give it a try based on my description, and see if you don’t agree with me!

Looking for more calf stretches and other full-length stretching workouts?  Consider becoming a premium member of TheFlexibilityCoach.com today!  Take a free tour here.

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Amazing, how a topic as basic as breathing can turn out to be so vast – too vast to even begin to cover in one little blog entry.  However, there is one simple yet effective breathing strategy anyone can apply the next time you’re stretching:  make your exhales work for you!

Here’s what I mean:  typically, when we get into a stretching position, we’re immediately aware of the muscles being stretched.  How?  Our breath often becomes labored!  Either we hold our breath or we hasten our breath or we shorten our breaths in response to the stretch sensation.  We may also tense up our neck and shoulders, make a face, or (if you’re the husband to The Flexibility Coach and you’re being led through a series of post-run hamstring stretches) express our feelings about the stretch in the form of punctuated obscenities.

This is normal, of course.  The body’s instinct, after all, is to evade injury first and foremost, and one of ways it does this is by making the prospect of holding a stretched position any longer than a nanosecond extremely unappealing — even if the stretch is in fact a helpful and not harmful one.  Unfortunately, this response sometimes stands in the way of the body’s own flexibility needs, since the primary way to increase a muscle’s range of motion is to hold that stretch for at least 20-30 seconds.

This is where your exhales can help.  Upon assuming a stretch and feeling the sensation in the target muscles, what you want to do next (assuming the stretch is not excessively intense or causing genuine pain) is take a DEEP breath, then exhale slowly, and as you exhale, concentrate on relaxing those muscles.  Do it again, take a deep breath, and slowly exhale while consciously letting go of muscle tension.  Gradually, you’ll feel your muscles respond accordingly, making the stretch feel a bit more comfortable and helping you to feel more calm at the same time.  A win-win!

So the next time you’re going through your end-of-the-workout stretches, do yourself a favor and use those exhales to their full advantage!

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One of my missions as The Flexibility Coach is to make stretching as accessible and convenient as possible.  I could give you (and I believe I do!) the most effective, innovative, “Wow, I really need this” stretches and stretch workouts ever, but they would accomplish little in terms of relieving your tight calves, releasing your low back stiffness, or helping you run injury-free if you aren’t able to follow through with those stretches REGULARLY.

It’s for this reason that the tools I consider most essential to stretching all have the same two important features in common:  They require no special purchase, and we all have access to them already.  But don’t let that fool you:  these tools, while seemingly mundane and unsophisticated (I don’t think we’ll be seeing the “Power Stretch Wall 2000″ on store shelves anytime soon), they are surprisingly useful – in some cases vital – in maximizing the effectiveness of certain stretches.

With that said, I give you the six stretching must-haves, in no particular order:

  • Towel
  • Chair
  • Stairs (or a step stool)
  • Wall
  • Doorframe
  • Bed

Surprised?  Each of these items offers a way of tweaking various stretches in a way that helps you achieve the best possible stretch to the intended muscle or muscle group.  And here’s the key:  to do so safely.  Many stretches, in their “original” format, are in fact quite risky under certain circumstances or for certain body types.  Standing forward bends, for instance.  A standing forward bend CAN be a powerful hamstring stretch.  But it can also place a great deal of stress on the low back, particularly if you have tight hamstrings.  Furthermore, if you do have tight hamstrings, there’s a good chance your body will work “around” the forward bend anyway, altering your position in such a way that bypasses the hamstring stretch and further stresses the low back.  But rest your hands on a chair seat, or along a wall, and suddenly you can keep your knees fully stretched, your back neutral (as opposed to rounded), and your upper body’s weight supported vis-a-vis your hands resting on a fixed object.  Altogether, this allows you to safely access the intended stretch — i.e. to feel the stretch in the back of the legs, without any pain or strain to your legs or back — and to then be able to hold the stretch long enough to relax your muscles.  A far cry from wincing your way through a stretch that feels so uncomfortable, you have a hard time breathing!

 In the blogs ahead, I will highlight how each of these tools is used, including which muscles are particularly aided by stretches with a given tool.  In the meantime, isn’t it nice to know that everything you need to stretch — and get results — is already a part of your home environment?

Do you use your MP3 player when you workout?  Consider adding my audio stretch workouts to your player and make your end-of-workout stretches more effective!  Learn more here.

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I began teaching yoga and training clients one-on-one over 15 years ago, and started my company, The Flexibility Coach, over 10, yet I still remember one of my earliest revelations:  Few people know how to stretch.  I mean REALLY know how to stretch, specifically, in a way that achieves the desired effect of Evamarie is demonstrating the Doorframe Chest Stretchincreasing their muscles’ flexibility.  In those early days, I found myself often scrapping my initial, meticulously designed lesson plans and client programs and instead focusing on the basics:  how to stretch, what to expect in terms of body sensations, and applying these guidelines to straightforward, easy-to-access stretches and exercises, many of which were based more on everyday movements than on “official” fitness or sports drills.  Much to everyone’s delight — mine, my clients, and my students — this simplified approach brought results.  Not just results, GOOD results.  NOTICEABLE results.  Results that showed themselves both in people’s everyday life and in their fitness and athletics.

Of course, I have built a sizeable repertoire of exercises and stretches since those inaugural years, but the experience gave me a number of important lessons that have become part of the foundation to my instruction.  One of those lessons is that no matter how “great” the stretch or exercise, the degree to which it will benefit the person is directly proportional to that person’s ability to perform it with optimal technique.  And in the case of stretching, that optimal technique includes accessing that all-important “stretch zone.”

The “stretch zone” is a term I have come up with to describe the tension that a muscle needs to feel in order for a stretch to enact any change on the muscle’s flexibility.  This is where there’s a little bit of art injected into the science of stretching:  Although stretching a muscle entails clear-cut physiological processes, in order to activate those processes, you have to know and observe your personal boundaries, which are highly individualized.  You must be able to decipher the difference between a position that isn’t accomplishing a whole lot (in terms of flexibility promotion), vs. a position that has taken your body TOO far, into a degree of stretching that is harmful and possibly injurious to your muscles or joints.  The challenge lies in finding the “zone” in between those two extremes.

The best way to try this out is with a stretch that isn’t particularly risky for most of us, yet involves muscles in which we all tend to feel some degree of tension or tightness.

Let’s take the Doorframe Chest Stretch:  Assuming you are injury-free in your chest, shoulder and neck region….

  • Go to a doorframe and rest your right hand on it, at about the height of your chest
  • Walk far enough from the door so that your arm is stretched fully; your right palm should be facing forward.
  • Now, slowly turn away from your hand, both with your upper body and with your feet.
  • Keep rotating in this way until you start to feel a stretch.  The stretch might be in your chest, in your shoulder, in your neck, your arm, or some combination of these muscles.
  • Pause here, take a deep breath, and consciously relax your neck muscles when you exhale.  Now, evaluate.  Can you rotate just a little bit further — that is, without causing pain?  (As always, if you feel pain, stop immediately.)  If you can turn a little bit more and feel a deeper stretch, do so.  Otherwise, stay where you are.
  • In either case, do you feel some tension in your muscles?  A sense of their being stretched?  Is the tension enough that you have to concentrate a bit in order to relax, yet not so intense that you can’t breathe smoothly or you’re forced to assume a pained facial expression?

If you feel the tension and stretch sensation, then are able to relax somewhat, and there’s no pain involved, congratulations!  You have successfully found your “stretch zone,” at least for this particular muscle or group of muscles.

Now that you know this feeling, keep this in mind when you practice other stretches, particularly those that are aimed for long holds and deep stretching, such as those you would perform at the end of a workout.  For example, the next time you try out a calf stretch, make sure you’re manipulating the stretch to access that same stretch tension/sensation in the calf.  When stretching your hamstrings, try to isolate your hamstrings as opposed to stretching your low back muscles, which is a common error when attempting a hamstring stretch.  Remember, if your body finds a way “around” a stretch for a given muscle, the stretch isn’t doing the intended muscle any good.  It’s less a matter of what the stretch LOOKS like (though the technique and alignment do matter), more a matter of how the stretch FEELS internally.

If you keep the above in mind, and really apply your breathing and consciously relaxing your muscles when you stretch, you will find a world of difference both in how you feel right after a stretch session, and the positive impact it makes on your flexibility and fitness overall!

Need some specific stretches?  Forget scouring the internet!  Stop by and become a premium member of TheFlexibilityCoach.com, and have all the stretches and stretch workouts you’ll ever need in one, reliable location  —  including my Stretching Workout Collection Book, audio stretch workoutsinstant-watch yoga videos and printable stretch PDF’sTake a tour today!

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Note:  This article is cross-posted to my other blog, The Hungry Runner.

Lately, it seems my work at The Flexibility Coach is centering more and more on helping people relieve their tight calf muscles; it’s by far the most frequently asked question I receive.  And one of the more recent variants of that concern has been, “How do calf stretches work?”  Good question.  After all, if you know how the stretches work — both in the general sense and regarding specific stretches, you’ll be more apt to apply those stretches in a way that yields the desired results.  So here’s a basic explanation:

Calf stretches work several ways.  The first is the most direct:  Calf stretches, that is, stretches that are specifically targeted for the CALF muscles, offer relief for the tightness you feel upon awakening in the morning, following a workout, after a long day spent on your feet, etc.  When we stand, walk, run, stand on “tiptoe,” wear shoes with any kind of heel, climb a hill or stairs, jump…we are using our calf muscles.  In fact, most of us OVERuse our calves (more on that in a moment), which only exacerbates the chronic shortening of this muscle.  By taking the time to stretch — my recommendation is daily, we begin to reverse the cumulative effect of this high demand on the muscle.  How?  By helping our muscles recover from constantly being called upon, allowing them to relax and establish comfortable (yes, comfortable!) mobility.  Holding a stretch also helps to direct more blood flow to the muscle, and re-educate the muscle on its full range (most of us are actually much more flexible than we think, we just haven’t given our muscles the means of safely moving to their full length).  Altogether, these effects of stretching help to change in the way we walk and workout.  This is significant, because when we walk and move differently, we further alleviate the imbalanced load placed on overworked muscles, which means we’re helping to prevent the development of muscle tightness in the first place!

The kind of stretching that accomplishes the above is typically performed slowly, with long holds (at least 30-40 seconds), and a specific focus on trying to relax the muscle.

But calf stretches are not, as it turns out, limited to stretches aimed directly at the calf muscle itself.  To truly improve the flexibility of this area of the body, you need to stretch other muscles, such as the hamstrings and the hips (glutes).  This is because calf tightness rarely occurs in isolation.  In fact, it’s not unusal for calf tightness to be BOTH a problem in itself AND a symptom of a bigger problem, that of overall leg tightness.  Ever watch the way an elderly person hobbles along?  Ever wonder how they arrived at that point?  Guess what, much of that immobilization began with leg muscles that gradually became tighter.  And — fortunately and unfortunately – the body is incredibly adaptable; it can take an increase in muscle tightness and accommodate it simply by moving differently.  Problem solved!  Except….that altered movement in itself will tend to cause additional tightness elsewhere, while the original tightness grows worse by the day.  See how it can happen?  The answer to breaking that cycle lies in being vigilant in keeping the legs (and the rest of the body) supple.  And that means responding to tight calves with the seriousness it deserves, in the form of regular, quality stretching for the calves, hamstrings and hips.  And in so doing, you’ll release tight leg muscles AND lighten the load placed on your calves throughout your day, which once again will help you reduce the occurrence of calf tightness to begin with.

The other way that well-chosen, properly executed calf stretches work, is to activate and strengthen weak muscles — the very muscles that lend support to the calf, ankle, and rest of the leg.  For example, if you stand upright, then lift the ball of your right foot while leaving your right heel on the floor, you may very well feel a stretch on your calf.  But you will also be activating the muscles in front of your shin.  This is important, because the muscles in front of the shin (namely, the tibialis anterior) tend to be weak, due to the overdominance of the calf muscle (yes, the same calf that’s all cranky and tight in the first place).  But it doesn’t stop there; calf tightness is often also accompanied by a weak low back, weak core muscles, and — ironically — weak calf muscles! 

Weak calf muscles, you say?  How can that be?  The truth is, although we put our calves through a great deal each day, the movements themselves are by and large the same small, repetitive, limited-range movements.  So, although the calf may have OK function and endurance for our daily activities, the ankle and lower leg are often ill-prepared to handle anything else.  To see what I’m talking about, stand on one leg, and swing your “free” leg (the one in the air) forward and back, in a gentle pendulum motion.  How long can you do this before you start to waiver and bobble, never mind before your supporting leg starts to feel fatigued?

Thus, by including calf exercises, core work, low back exercises, and various forms of balance training in your calf stretch strategy, you’ll be giving your body a more comprehensive strength and agility, which translates to reduced burden on the calves and a much easier time stretching those muscles effectively.

Obviously, there are many other ways that calf stretches work — I have not even touched on how stretching the calves will help improve your sports performance, such as the ability to jump and land.  And I have not addressed the fact that there are actually TWO main calf muscles, and that it’s often the smaller, lesser-known of the two that causes our greatest problems, and that stretches for this muscle in particular can therefore be, all by itself, an effective tool to thwart tight calves.  But at least this gives you the basics of what you should be experiencing upon implementing a calf stretch program for yourself.

For more information on calf tightness — including articles of mine and information on my calf stretch and other stretch workouts, please visit the following link:  Additional articles on calf stretches.  If you’re pressed for time and just want a pre-designed workout that’s ready to go, including both the printable workout sheet and accompanying audio, please consider becoming a member of The Flexibility Coach, where you’ll find a wide variety of stretch workouts, yoga videos, and downloadable MP3 files at your instant disposal.

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If there’s one reason I love to be a champion of stretching, it’s because so much of what helps our muscles is simple, can be performed by anyone at anytime, and renders instant results.  Shoulder circles are a classic example of this.  We often take them for granted as they’re typically “only” part of a warm-up.  Yet, they are a remarkable tool all by themselves.

Try this out for size, right now:  Sit tall (or better yet, take a moment to stand up — and stand tall), take a deep breath, and as you inhale, create a nice, large circle with your shoulders.  Relax.  Then repeat:  Inhale deeply, making a large shoulder circle, then relax your neck and shoulders (and pause).  Do this another 4-8 times, each time making your circle large, slow, and smooth, your breath deep, and then release all neck and shoulder tension at the end of each circle.

Feel better?  If so, there are numerous physiological reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the movement of the shoulders will help to momentarily activate, then release, muscle tension in the shoulders, upper back and neck.  Many of us hold onto tension in this area when we’re under stress.   The other reason is the deep breath; not only does a deep inhale help to bring more oxygen into the body, it helps further stretch and expand the air sacks in the lungs, which have receptor nerves that then send a signal to the brain, resulting in calming you down.  Finally, if your shoulder circles follow a “from front to back” path, you’ll mometarily put your body closer to a neutral alignment, which takes pressure off the low back and chest, and allows you to breathe more easily.

All of that from a “measly” shoulder circle!  Given this day and age of remedies that are either complicated, expensive, or time-consuming, it’s nice when we can turn to a truly effective “quick fix” for ourselves — and at no cost!

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As you hopefully know by virtue of reading this blog or visiting my website, much of the goal of my work is to help you stay mobile and active, both in the immediate sense – enjoying a good stretch or stretch workout and the improvements that it can bring in the short term – and for the long haul.  So it brings me great joy to share with you a wonderful resource that has just come to my attention, one that shares that same goal of helping you retain lifelong mobility and comfort, particularly if you happen to suffer from arthritis.  That resource is a project called “Fight Arthritis Pain,” and its website is chock full of helpful tools, including fun ways to add some form of daily exercise to your life and a thriving community with whom you can converse and share your experiences.  Their belief, as is mine, is that “Movement is Medicine,” and I can honestly say that my 15+ years in the fitness profession has enabled me to see this phrase play out in the “real world” countless times.

Of course, being The Flexibility Coach that I am, I have to admit that the page that especially caught my attention was their “Get Moving” page, which outlines the basics on how to set up your own exercise program if you have osteoarthritis, including the importance of flexibility and engaging in gentle stretches.  Knowing how overwhelming it can be to even know where or how to get started with exercise even without a challenging body condition, I find this page to be an extremely valuable tool to establish the basics and help you to take that first step towards feeling better.

In any event, if you or someone you love is suffering from arthritis, or you fear you might be at risk, I hope you will visit the Fight Arthritis Pain website (www.fightarthritispain.org) and empower yourself with information that could literally change the course of your life!

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I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but our spring this year has been exceptionally mild, a delight for anyone who enjoys outdoor activities. And not surprisingly, golfers have made fast use of the warm, sunny weather, hitting the links in droves long before Memorial Day weekend is even part of the 10-day weather forecast.

But along with these early outings, I’m receiving a spike in inquiries about cranky low back muscles, whose tightness and stiffness are threatening to put the kibosh on an otherwise promising golf season. Thankfully, there’s still time to take action and ensure your handicap remains solely a reference to your game, and not the limitations of your body!

As always, if you’re experiencing low back issues, your first step is to check with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you to engage in stretches or exercises, and to follow whatever guidance your doctor gives you.

Assuming you have the all-clear from the doc, here are three steps to nip a tight, weak low back in the bud:

  1. Incorporate gentle stretches for the low back; examples include light twists, elbow-supported cobra, 2-knee to chest, and side stretches.  These are best performed AFTER a workout, as part of the recovery for fatigued muscles.
  2. Perform strengthening exercises for the core and low back muscles; examples include the elbow plank and prone opposite leg/reach.  These can be incorporated into a pre-existing workout program or performed as a quick stand-alone routine; just make sure you warm up before engaging in these exercises.
  3. Add stretches for your hip/glute muscles:  tightness in this region is extremely common, and the greater the tightness here, the more the body tries to “make up” for this tightness by turning to the low back, which puts additional stress on it.  You can perform these at the end of a workout, or choose convenient chair- or bed-based versions to incorporate into your home or work life.

*Not sure which stretches to choose?  The full “Stretches for Golfers” workout, which includes a printable PDF and companion audio instruction, is available to premium members of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.comA sample workout sheet can be viewed here.  A sample audio stretch workout can be listened to here.

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I must tell you, as much as I love my field of work — I’ve been a fitness professional now for over 15 years, there are those pockets of my industry that make me crazy.  One of them is the uber-abundance of products, services and resources that are only too willing to clamor aboard the “Fast and Easy Weight Loss!” bandwagon, presumably because of the money-making potential of such a claim.  I imagine that for every person momentarily persuaded by a program or expert (both the good and the bad) promising an effective weight loss solution, there are handfuls rolling their eyes with a jaded “Yeah, RIGHT” reaction.  And who can blame them?  Unless you live in a cave, you’re only too aware that the world is obsessed with weight loss and saturated with the next great diet, research study, infomercial, reality show, guru, etc. that has the answer to this problem.  It’s reached the point in which it’s difficult as a fitness professional to know how to put herself in a position in which she can be of genuine help in this regard, without being drowned out by the drone of much louder weight loss pundit megaphones, or without appearing to be “selling out” and adding to the weight loss cliche pile.

But of course, part of the reason for this dilemma in the first place is because losing weight — and keeping it off – IS very difficult.  If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be such a ginormous industry to help with the problem.  And while there is a veritable haystack of half-truths and empty fixes to weed through, the needles of truly helpful advice are there if you keep digging.  Here are four of them, relating to how to use stretching as a legitimate and effective tool for weight loss:

  1. Stretching can be an enjoyable, non-threatening, confidence-building first step towards other forms of exercise:  Many people feel timid about going to the gym or adverse to the thought of exercise, either out of fear of looking awkward or hurting themselves, or not knowing what to do, or just plain not liking the idea of having to break a sweat and put themselves through an uncomfortable level of exertion.  Yet, time and time again, exercise is proven to be an effective, if not outright essential, tool to long-term weight management success.  What to do?  Stretching workouts can be the answer.  What’s unique about stretching versus other fitness activities is that it not only benefits a person long term (I won’t elaborate on the specifics here, you can find them in other entries at this blog and in the articles section of my website), it immediately feels good!  What’s more, the range of options and modifications ensures that even the most basic of beginners can enjoy an effective workout for themselves.  You start to realize how much you CAN do, which is a powerful motivator!  And once you’ve become comfortable with a regular stretching routine, you can consider building from there, such as taking walks or signing up for a yoga class.
  2. Stretching can help “break the back” of a large appetite:  Appetite, as no doubt you’re aware, is a complex animal.  There is no one factor responsible for what we crave and what enables us to curtail certain food choices.  Which is why no one action, pill, burst of knowledge, situation, etc. is going to have an absolute effect one way or the other.  But we can certainly take steps to swing the pendulum further from the “Uncontrollable” end of the appetite spectrum, and closer to the “Very Manageable” end.  One way to do this is to take a few minutes to unwind and stretch shortly before a meal, such as dinner.  This accomplishes three things:  Number one, it slows you down.  Studies show that when we’re keyed up and in a hurry, we eat faster, which means we’re likely to have eaten more than we might have liked by the end of the meal.  So slowing down helps to thwart that effect.  Secondly, it relieves stress, allowing you to release emotions and tension that might have fueled certain food or eating choices, paving the way for you to opt for healthier, more nourishing foods instead.  Thirdly, it helps to attune you to your senses, which will help you to eat more mindfully and derive better enjoyment from your meal — the taste of the food, texture of the food, fragrance, etc.  Eating mindfully is one sure way to eat less, because you’re much more satisfied on less!
  3. Stretching can be a exercise routine “placeholder” when life gets hectic:  Ask anyone who has experienced the joy of regular exercise and you’ll likely get reports of better energy, stronger muscles, less stress, improved sleep, weight loss, increased self esteem, lower blood pressure, and so on.  But ask anyone for whom life has managed to interfere with their exercise routine (and somehow, life has a tendency to do that), and you’ll also get lamentations of how difficult it is to get back on track once the routine is disrupted, even with the knowledge of all those benefits they’d experienced!  The lesson here is, it’s far better to cut back and do less (temporarily) than to stop altogether.  So when things get crazy-busy, consider stretching as a quick and convenient stand-in.  By swapping out your normal fitness workouts for even just 10-15 minutes of stretching, you’ll keep the momentum — the habit — of your exercise schedule intact until your time opens up again and allows you to add back those other activities (and hopefully keep up with the stretching, given its own unique benefits!).  What’s especially useful about stretching for this purpose is that it truly can be done anywhere:  your living room, your office, your bed, etc.  So, do yourself a favor; avoid backsliding by allocating stretching as your steadfast “back-up plan.”
  4. Stretching is a contagious act of self-care:  I am wholeheartedly convinced that one of the reasons people overeat is out of a (misplaced) attempt at self-care.  Food is quick and easy to access, it tastes good, it’s cheap (or at least it can be), and it doesn’t talk back.  It’s the one activity in which we get to choose exactly what WE want, what WE like, and not choose what we DON’T want, what we DON’T like.  That’s tough to beat when you’ve just had a long, exhausting, stressful day.  And it can become an  even tougher habit to break.  But there’s a saying that a habit can be displace by….another habit.  If you’re hoping to loosen your grip on turning to unhealthy foods, consider regular stretching.  Will it magically remove the draw of certain foods?  Probably not.  But you’ll feel much better, which can lead to your looking for other ways to enhance that good feeling (junk food, for all its instant gratification, is obviously not compatible with this objective).  And by engaging in an activity that is truly healthful and caring for your mind and body, you send a powerful messsage to yourself that you’re worth the trouble of doing so.  And bit by bit, the seed of change starts to grow.  Maybe you start drinking more water today, maybe you start switching out one food for another tomorrow.  THIS is the path to long-term weight loss:  one foot in front of the other, one healthful addition here, one unhealthful subtraction there.  It all adds up!

Now, can I give you hard numbers?  You’ll lose X pounds in Y days if you do the above?  Is there a guarantee attached to these steps?  Obviously not.  But I’m of the firm belief that successful, long-term weight loss is dependent on two key essentials:  honesty (as opposed to hype), and orienting one’s life around weight-loss supporting behaviors from as many different angles as possible.  You can probably name a number of actions you already take to either keep your weight down or begin losing, such as opting for low-calorie beverages or eating more fruits and vegetables.  Why not add stretching to your weight loss arsenal, and move yourself that much closer to your goals?

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Stretching is so important, and for so many reasons, yet when I talk to people who have tried to “do more stretching” as part of their workout routine, I often hear tales of frustration and lackluster results.  Upon further investigation, it usually turns out to be a matter of certain common mistakes being made when attempting to stretch.

To illustrate, picture this scenario and see if you can relate:  You’re at the gym, wrapping up a sweat-soaked run on the treadmill or a session of intense core and free weight exercises.  You feel good, maybe have that endorphin buzz, but your muscles are now quite tight from the hour of constant contraction.  You glance at your watch, debate skipping your stretches (feeling like they’re a bit of a hassle), but decide you’d better stop and at least go through one or two.  So you sit down, assume some “default” stretch, maybe one your coach gave you back in college.  You wince upon feeling your muscles tense up, but dutifully hold the stretch for a few seconds, then switch and grit through the other side.  You try out another stretch, one that you saw in a magazine a while back and have been using ever since.  Same approach, same execution.  Feeling a bit relaxed but not much less tight, you work your way back up to a standing position and shuffle to the locker room.  Weeks go by and you notice that you’re not feeling any looser or more flexible.  If anything, you feel worse!  What gives?  You might be tempted to conclude that the stretches aren’t doing any good, that your body just isn’t the “flexible type.”

But before you rush to that conclusion, check out the following common mistakes, to see if the answer lies there instead:

  • Not knowing the goal of the stretch:  This is crucial, yet often overlooked.  When assuming a stretch, do you have any idea what it’s supposed to accomplish?  Is it a hamstring stretch?  Is there a strength component (i.e. strengthening the low back while stretching the front of the body)?  Is it a deep stretch or just a light release of tension?  Is it a recovery stretch from a workout or just a general stretch to alleviate tightness?  Knowing what it is you’re doing is the first step towards making sure you get the most from the stretch, such as which muscles you should be trying to relax, which muscles (if any) to activate, and what constitutes optimal form and alignment in the stretch.
  • Bailing out before the full benefit of the stretch kicks in:  I initially titled this bullet as, “Not holding the stretch for a long enough period,” but that doesn’t fully address the real issue.  True, it’s recommended that most stretches be held in the ballpark of 20-40 seconds, but what you really want to pay attention to is how your body is responding.  Most stretches go through a 2-part phase:  the first part, in which you feel that specific tension (but not pain or excess discomfort) indicating the muscle is being elongated past its norm, and the second part, in which the muscle begins to relax and surrender to the stretch.  Often, this second part is when you’ll notice you feel less tense, and your breath becomes more even, and you may even feel that welcome “Ahhhhh” relief of the stretch.  But if you get out of the stretch before this happens — i.e. when you’re still hanging on for dear life with a tortured look on your face (truth be told, you should never stretch to the point that it induces a tortured look on your face!), you’re depriving yourself of the very reward and benefit of stretching.  In other words, you’re putting yourself through the hardest part, and shortchanging yourself the good part!   So do yourself a favor:  slow down, be patient, and bring enough diligence to your stretch session to feel the release.
  • Not honoring your comfort zone:  Hopefully you know this by now, but forcing a stretch, stretching in an abrupt, over-aggressive manner, stretching through pain or extreme discomfort….are all invitations to causing injury or worse.  Above all else, make sure you’re always aware of how you feel in a stretch, and stop immediately if you feel pain or some other distress.  Always approach a stretch slowly, and with good control.
  • Not using the right stretches for your body, your goals, and your current needs:  While it’s not the first item on this list, this may in fact be the #1 problem.  Every one of us engages in repetitive daily movements unique to our work, our personal life, and our body’s current movement patterns and imbalances.  Add to that the unique physiology and genetics we each possess, our bodies’ own strengths and areas of vulnerability, our current exercise activities, AND our fitness, athletic, or general health goals, and you can see how easy it is to be missing the boat entirely when it comes time to choosing those stretches that will be the most useful to you.  It can be tedious (though you can give yourself a shortcut by using the pre-designed stretch workouts at www.theflexibilitycoach.com), but do some research and zero in on the stretches that satisfy your top three concerns.  For example, if you’re a runner who fights tight calf muscles and low back tightness, you would probably be well-advised to zero in on stretches that address those three areas, and see what happens.
  • Not stretching often enough:  Given a choice between short-duration, consistent stretch routines vs. a long-duration routine that only gets performed sporadically, guess which one trumps the other?  A simple stairway-based calf stretch that gets done every day, for example, will accomplish far more in releasing tight calves and promoting overall mobility to the leg than a long, drawn-out stretch workout you do every now and then after a particularly grueling run.
  • Not utilizing your breath:  Merely holding a stretch can only take you so far.  Thankfully, your breath is one of your best tools in extracting the fullest potential from a stretch.  By taking deep breaths and using particularly your exhales to lengthen certain muscles while possibly activating others, you use your whole body to maximize the quality of the stretch.  More over, this pairing of stretch and breath will help you to focus, relieve stress, and feel better.  Not bad for an involuntary action our bodies are performing each and every moment of the day!
  • Not using proper form:  Probably goes without saying, but it’s worth repeating.  With stretching, quality matters, to the point that just a tiny adjustment can make a dramatic difference in both the feel of the stretch and what it does to the body.   Make sure you understand how to do the stretch properly, and make that your goal each and every time.
  • Not giving stretching the same focus as the rest of your workout:  I see it all the time; people devote themselves wholeheartedly to their sport or workout, only to treat the stretch as a sort of optional afterthought.  To do so is somewhat akin to shampooing your hair with the best hair care product, yet not being thorough in rinsing your hair.  As good as it feels to have completed a satisfying fitness session, give your stretches the same attention you gave the rest of the exercises.  THEN celebrate the end of another awesome effort!
  • Thinking too all-or-nothing with fitting stretching in:  If you can’t allocate a dedicated time for a stretch workout due to your schedule, not all need be lost.  Consider other ways to add regular stretching to your day, such as on a coffee break at work, or just before lunch, or while watching TV.  That’s the one big advantage stretching has over almost every other fitness activity:  It’s portable, and (yes I’m saying it) flexible!

So there you have it!  If you find yourself unimpressed with your current stretch routine, check this list, make some tweaks, and see if you don’t finally start to see the changes you were hoping for.

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