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Stretch Your Way to Fitness

Today personal trainers know that one of the best ways to improve performance in any athletic field is through flexibility, and stretching. What makes a person flexible?  Interestingly, “flexibility” means the ability to withstand stress without injury.

Every time one muscle in the body tightens, its opposing muscle stretches. A bicep contraction (front upper arm) happens when an arm bends at the elbow, and a tricep extension (back upper arm).  Everyone stretches every day because they flex their muscles.  Fitness training simply puts standards of performance on what the body does naturally. Touching toes on a forward bend with straight legs is a standard of performance. Only making it as far as touching your knees is a standard of performance, too.  If less injury and better athletic performance, make stretching exercises a daily priority.

Stretching muscles to their full range of motion everyday prevents injuries because it improves the range of motion in joints.   Ligaments are meant to stay somewhat inflexible to hold the bone together. Muscles pull the two bones toward each other or away from each other around a joint; for example a knee.  The hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh pull the lower leg back, flexing the knee.  The quadricepses on the top of the thigh pull the lower leg forward extending the knee. There are two ways, therefore, to improve the performance of the knee.  More flexing, and more extending. Note: “flexing” a muscle tightens or shortens it, and extending a muscle releases or lengthens it.

Muscles need a certain amount of blood flow before they accept a stretch, otherwise they tighten. For simple stretching, people need to start by taking deep breaths, increasing their heart rate slightly, then adding some big, slow rhythmic movements, such as sweeping their arms overhead on the inhalation and returning them to their sides on the exhalation. 

A person needs to start slowly, holding a stretch to the point where it is felt, but not painful. Holding a static stretch for 12-20 seconds at a minimum will help release muscular tension. Sometimes, people do best to tighten, and then release their muscles so they feel the difference.

Here's a trainer’s tip: if a person feels tense all the time, their body maybe protecting them from perceived stress.  Most people go to personal trainers for strength or sports-specific training, but they can also get an education on flexibility. Many sports related injuries are prevented when flexibility is a training priority.

People can take a few little stretch breaks throughout their day. It is especially good to take breaks from long bouts of sitting, reading, typing or physical labor. Stretching after any activity will help to keep muscles more flexible.  Sitting for long periods in the theater, at work, on a plane, or just watching television creates tremendous strain on muscles. People should stretch periodically, change positions or stand and walk around every 20 minutes.


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