I see it in the gym all the time. A guy comes in, works out hard, sweats, runs, lifts and grunts his way to better health. Then he grabs a drink of water and leaves the gym, skipping a vital part of his exercise routine.
What did he forget? He didn’t stretch.
Stretching after a workout helps elongate muscles that have been shortened during the exercise session, promote healing, provide flexibility and enhanced range of motion, and prevent future injury.
- During exercise, muscles contract as the body is tensed. Stretching will help re-lengthen them.
- As the body works harder, oxygen may be limited. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles as a way to allow energy production to continue. Some studies have determined this lactic acid is responsible for DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. Stretching allows the lactic acid to leave the muscles and diminish DOMS.
- Stretching also releases synovial fluids which help lubricate the joints, protects them from friction and allows them to move through their full range of motion. A healthy joint with full range of motion is less likely to get injured in sports, accidents or daily activities.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching all major muscle groups after regular exercise, preferably five to seven days per week.
So what are the best stretches to do on the gym floor after your workout? At a minimum target the legs, shoulders and back muscles. All stretches should be static. Those old ballistic, bouncy stretches we learned way back in high school actual lead to tearing of the muscles. Hold each stretch for up to 30 seconds.
I prefer to end a hard sweaty workout in the gym with one complete top to bottom stretch . In yoga we call it downdog at the wall.
Standing at the wall, place hands about shoulder height. Walk feet back until you are at a right angle and push hips back. Your head should be between your arms, ears in line with your elbows. You can peddle the feet to stretch the back of the legs. Stay here as long as you want, taking full deep breaths.
If you prefer to stretch each muscle group individually, try these easy beginner stretches:
- Hamstrings – stand with one foot in front, push hips back and point toes of front foot upward. Switch legs.
- Quadriceps – balance on one foot, reach back and grab inside ankle of opposite foot. Make sure knee is pointing straight down to stretch the front of the thigh. Switch legs.
- Calf – standing close to a wall, put toes up on wall with heel on floor. Lean into the stretch. This is great not only for the calves, but also to stretch the bottom of the foot preventing plantar fasciitis.
- Back/Shoulders – standing with legs wide, lean halfway forward, resting hands on thighs. Round the back like a cat, then flatten. Drop right shoulder to left knee, return to center, drop left shoulder to right knee. Return to center, arch like a cat and roll up slowly.
Add in some flexibility training to your cardio and strength training and you'll be on your way to a well-rounded exercise routine.
Of course though, as a yoga teacher, I can't let this opportunity go by without saying that if you really want to take your exercise and health to a new level, come on in to one of my yoga classes. I guarantee you'll find muscles you didn't know you had!