Smart Stretching

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Everyday activities take a toll on our bodies, tightening our muscles and limiting our range of motion in potentially painful ways. This simple stretch routine can help undo the damage.

Our bodies take a lot of abuse. We sleep on lousy mattresses, sit hunched over in our cars and at our desks, lug shoulder bags and wear shoes that wreak havoc on our feet. Then — if we’re good — we go to the gym, where we lift heavy weights and log miles on the treadmill. But when muscles (and the fascia that binds them) are constantly pulled in the same direction, they become short and tight. Over time, this can lead to reduced range of motion, compensation and injury.

When we stretch, we restore a muscle’s normal movement ability, bringing balance to the body. Some studies have found that over time a general stretching regimen (meaning, one performed regularly, but not necessarily before or after a workout) can decrease injury and improve sports performance. (For more, search for “Stretch and Reach.”)

If you’ve ever tried to stretch and felt like your body was fighting back, you can credit a built-in defense mechanism called the stretch reflex. When your brain senses that a muscle is being stretched, receptors called muscle spindles cause the muscle to contract to prevent you from overstretching and hurting yourself. These receptors also make it difficult to achieve a deeper stretch.

The following routine can help solve that problem while addressing common areas of muscle tightness and imbalance. These eight stretches (plus a bonus calf stretch offered online) are adapted from the book Prescriptive Stretching, by Kristian Berg (Human Kinetics, 2011). They incorporate the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) method — a physical therapy procedure that tricks tight, resistant muscles into relaxing, thus enabling a deeper stretch.

Berg suggests holding stretches for a range of five to 10 seconds for the initial contract and passive phases; we’ve offered specific times based on Berg’s range and NSCA recommendations.

4-Step Stretch

Here’s how to outsmart your body’s stretch-limiting reflex with PNF:

1. Initial stretch
This gentle stretch elongates the muscle without activating the body’s defense response.

2. Contraction
By contracting the muscle being stretched, you activate a different group of receptors called golgi tendon organs (GTOs). GTOs signal the muscle to relax, superseding the “stop” signal from the muscle spindles.

3. Relaxation
Here, you allow the muscle to relax in preparation for a deeper stretch.

4. Deeper stretch
With the stretch reflex disarmed, you can now stretch the muscle through a greater range of motion.

By repeating this cycle several times, you can considerably improve a muscle’s flexibility.

8 Smart Stretches

Pectoralis Major

Large chest muscle from the rib cage to the upper arm.

Why stretch it: Forward-oriented activities such as typing and driving can tighten this muscle, contributing to poor posture.

  • Start: Stand facing a corner of a room, with one foot in the corner and the other foot behind you. Raise your arms so your elbows are slightly higher than your shoulders and pointing forward. Place your hands and forearms against the walls.
  • Stretch: Keeping your abs engaged, bend your front knee and lean your body into the corner until you feel a slight stretch in the chest. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist for six seconds by pressing both hands and elbows forward as if you are trying to move the walls.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Again, lean your body into the corner until you feel a deeper stretch. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Latissimus Dorsi

Wide muscle that covers the sides of the back.

Why stretch it: Lack of overhead arm movement can shorten the lats, causing pain in the lower back and shoulders.

  • Start: Stand an arm’s length away from a door handle. Grab it with your right hand and step your left foot closer to the door. Fold forward so your right arm and torso are parallel with the floor. Step your right foot back and slightly to the left. Place your left hand on the door, keeping that arm bent.
  • Stretch: Press your left hand against the door and hold the handle with your right. When you feel a stretch, hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist for six seconds by pulling your right arm toward the side of your body. Do not let go of the handle.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Continue to push-pull on the door. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Gluteus Medius and Minimus

Layered muscles located on the outside of the hipbone.

Why stretch them: These can get overworked when walking and running.

  • Start: Face a table the same height as your groin. Standing on your left leg, bend your right knee and place your leg on the table. Adjust your right knee so it lies in front of your navel, and bring your right foot to the left of your left hip. Face forward with abs tight and lower back arched.
  • Stretch: Slowly lean forward while maintaining the arch in your lower back. When you feel a stretch in the side of your right buttock, hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist by pressing your right knee into the table for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Lean forward again until you reach a new ending point. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Psoas and Iliacus

Hip-flexor muscles situated deep within the abdominal wall and upper thigh.

Why stretch them: The psoas and iliacus are shortened during activities that flex the hips, such as sitting. Because they increase the arch of the lower back, tight hip flexors are notorious for causing lower-back pain.

  • Start: Lie on your back on a stable table with your legs hanging off the edge. Grab your left knee with both hands and pull it gently toward your chest.
  • Stretch: Stretch the hip flexors on the right side by letting the right leg hang for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist by lifting your right leg toward the ceiling for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Hang your right leg off the table again. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. For a more intense stretch, hang a heavy bag from your right foot. Switch sides.

Rectus Femoris

The only quad that crosses the hip and knee joints.

Why stretch it: When tight, it can cause pain in the knee, hip and lower back.

  • Start: Stand to the left of a waist-high surface on your left foot and place your right leg on the surface behind you. Bend your right knee and loop an elastic band around your right foot. Place your left foot in front of your hips. Hold the band above your head. Fold forward, taking hold of the band with both hands, and rest your body on the bench.
  • Stretch: Straighten your arms so the band pulls your foot toward your butt. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Holding the band tightly, try to straighten your right leg as you press your right knee into the bench. Hold for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Pull the band ends overhead again and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Hamstrings

Four separate muscles on the back of the thigh.

Why stretch them: Running and excessive sitting shorten them, which can lead to lower-back pain or decreased range of motion.

  • Start: Sit on a bench so that your entire right leg rests on the surface and your right foot dangles off the edge. Plant your left foot on the floor, as far back as possible. Sit up tall with abs engaged and lower back arched. Keep a slight bend in your right knee.
  • Stretch: Slowly lean forward
  • while maintaining the arch in your back. When you feel a stretch in the back of your right thigh, hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist by straightening your right knee and pressing it into the bench for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Reach forward with your upper body until you reach a new end point. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Piriformis

A small muscle deep in the buttocks.

Why stretch it: Biomechanical imbalances, such as weak glutes, cause the piriformis to perform extra work. The resulting tight piriformis can push on the sciatic nerve, causing pain in the hips and buttocks and down the side of the leg.

  • Start: Sit on a chair, lower back arched and abs tight. Cross your legs so the outside of your right foot rests on your left thigh, just above the knee.
  • Stretch: Stretch by either pushing down on your right knee with your hand or leaning forward until you feel a stretch in the right buttock. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist by pushing your right knee up against your hand for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Push on your right knee or lean forward until you feel a deeper stretch. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Gastrocnemius

Powerful calf muscle that runs from the knee joint to the heel.

Why stretch it: When it gets tight, it can cause pain in the Achilles’ tendon and arch of the foot, as well as cramping in the muscle itself.

  • Start: On a low step or curb, stand on the ball of your
  • right foot so the arch and heel are hanging off the edge.
  • Stretch: Relax your calf and let your heel drop toward the ground. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Contract: Resist by using your calf muscles to raise your body 1 to 2 inches. Hold for six seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Drop your heel down again until you feel a deeper stretch. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.
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Calf Stretch

Soleus: Deep calf muscle that starts at the lower leg and attaches at the heel.

Why stretch it: Like the gastrocnemium, a tight soleus can cause pain in the Achilles tendon, arch of the foot and calf.

  • Start: Stand about an arm’s length from a wall and press the ball of your right foot against the wall, keeping your heel on the ground. Slightly bend the right knee.
  • Stretch: Slowly lean your right leg and upper body forward, maintaining the angle of your knee, until you feel a stretch in the back of your right lower leg. Hold for 10 seconds
  • Contract: Resist by pressing your right foot into the wall, trying to point it, for 10 seconds.
  • Relax for five seconds.
  • Stretch: Continue to lean your right leg and upper body forward until you reach a new ending point. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.

Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance writer and personal trainer in the Chicago area. She blogs at www.nicolewritesfitness.com.

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