Stretching – the pros and cons

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Lots of athletes, fitness junkies or even those who only exercise to keep themselves fit have one thing in common – their unawareness and ignorance about stretching. In school, most of the teachers in our P.E class made us do a couple of exercises before teaching us something or letting us play. We hated them. Even the most professional athletes, dancers, gymnasts would love to get away without doing them. But many are yet extremely oblivious to the benefits and/or bad effects of stretching. Here are a few facts one must know about stretching.

Firstly, stretching is not the same as warming up. A lot of people tend to confuse the two. If you have been under a fitness trainer while working out, you’d know that your trainer will ask you to first warm up then stretch and only then begin working out. Warming is a must before any kind of workout/sport activity. It is okay not to do any form of stretching before workouts but warming must not be ignored as it prepares your body for the impact it will receive after working out. A little jumping, stretching your hands high up in the air while jumping, jumping – jacks, hip – rotations and  walking before jogging are simple warm – ups that will help in increasing your stamina while working out. A simple stretching exercise like bending down and touching one’s feet should be followed only after a warm – up. The reason for this is that most stretching exercise tends to contract your muscles than relax it. Contraction of muscles before a workout can lead to injury or in extreme cases (if you’re playing football or you’re a gymnast) can lead to muscle tear. More importantly, stretching should never be used as a substitute for warm – up.

Stretching should target the body part you’re working out on. For example, if you want to tone your lower body like the butt and the thighs, ensure your stretching covers that region. But avoid high – intensity stretching. Jumping on your heels before doing squats is exactly the reason why you’ll be unable to do the latter. The former is a part of workout routines anyway. Remember, you’re only stretching to workout with ease. If stretching is the only exercise you do then stretch those thighs as much as your body lets you to.

Many trainers and physiotherapists these days are warning us against stretching. As mentioned earlier, your muscles get contracted. This results in decreased strength and stamina. More than two – five minutes of stretching is often counter – productive. Moreover stretching does not necessarily prevent injury but may increase its risk.  Stretching largely depends on the kind of workout you’re going to do. It is advisable for dancers and gymnasts to do both warm – ups and stretching exercises before they get to their routine. Also avoid stretching if –

  • You have had a recent bone fracture, sprain or strain.
  • Your range of motion is limited.
  • Your joint happens to be inflamed or infected
  • You have osteoporosis.
  • It pains when a joint is being moved or the muscle is being stretched.
  • You are suffering from any blood or skin related diseases.

Researchers now say that the best time to stretch is after the workout – as a way of cooling down. This helps in –

  • Improving flexibility.
  • Increasing blood and nutrient circulation to the muscles.
  • Increasing your range of motion.
  • Reducing the soreness of muscles.
  • Preventing stomach pains for women during menstruation.
  • Improving your posture.
  • Relaxing the mind.

The best method of stretching is said to be the ‘dynamic stretching’. Unlike most other methods of stretching, dynamic stretching actually helps in increasing the muscle power. Its benefits include –

  • It engages your core muscles.
  • It stretches your hips, hamstrings and calves.
  • It relaxes your shoulders.
  • It prepares your body for the workout.

This is one of the examples of how to do a dynamic stretch –

  • Start off in the push up position with your hands beneath your shoulders and slightly wider than its width.
  • Bring your left foot beside your left palm.  It is alright if it does not come all the way. Just try stretching it as much as you can.  Do not forget to keep your back straight.
  • stretching2Lift the left arm and point it upwards. Stretch it all the way up.
  • stertching1Bring your hand down and lift your lower body the way you would in yoga- with your palms on the ground and your pelvis lifted up.
  • Repeat on the right side.

Lastly, if you do not indulge yourself in extreme workouts or even going to the gym, simple stretching exercises like the ones you would do in your P.E class are a good way to keep your body and mind active. Stretching is also a good way to take a break between long schedules requiring you to sit (while studying or in the office). If you are looking to use stretching as the only form of exercise then its best form is yoga. A little warm up and yoga is an excellent way to keep fit. Yoga involves a lot of stretching and keeps your body supple and increases your range of motion and flexibility. Hence don’t simply stretch as a part of a routine, know what you do.