Fitness Basics: Stretching Important to Fitness (cont.)

Michael George, whose approach combines traditional Western fitness with Eastern practices, says it doesn't matter whether you choose yoga, Pilates, or basic athletic stretches.

"I'm a believer in all of them," he says. "People should add variety to their program to keep things interesting."

How to Get Started

Whatever type of flexibility exercise you choose, Stuhr cautions, use self-restraint -- don't just leap into that Pilates or yoga class and start trying to keep up with the folks in the front row.

"People tend to do too much," she says. "They go in and complete an hour class when they probably only should have done about 15 minutes."

She recommends choosing a class appropriate to your fitness level, or taking a private lesson with a qualified teacher. Listen to your body and don't overdo it, she says.

And if you're new to flexibility training -- especially if you have an injury or disability -- it's a good idea to get evaluated by a qualified fitness professional or physical therapist.

Here are some tips to consider when stretching:

  • Be sure your muscles are warm before you stretch. If you are going to stretch before a workout, walk for five minutes first to get blood flowing to the muscles.
  • Never bounce or push during a stretch.
  • Ease into the stretch. Start with trying to hold it for 10 seconds. Work up to 30, and eventually 90 seconds.
  • Exhale as you stretch.
  • If you cannot stretch both before and after a workout, most experts advise stretching after the body has warmed up.
  • Never stretch an injured muscle or joint.
  • Stretching every day is optimal, but try to do it at least three times a week.

The Stretches

Below are some basic stretching exercises that target all the major muscle groups. Do the whole workout, or stretch a particular part of your body that's feeling tight. And don't forget to follow the safety tips above!

Neck: Standing straight with feet shoulder-width apart, drop the right ear toward the right shoulder and hold. Roll the head forward, stopping to rest the chin at your chest, than continue until the left ear is over the left shoulder. Lift the head and repeat starting on your left side.

Chest: Lying face-down with arms by your sides and palms facing down, tighten the abdominals to support the low back, than slide the shoulder blades down and together (like a "V") as you float your hands off the floor and lift your upper spine slightly off the floor.

Side/Back: Standing straight with feet shoulder-width apart, interlace the fingers and reach the arms overhead (do this only if you have no shoulder limitations). Lift up and out from your waist as you bend to each side, being careful not to shrug your shoulders.

Hamstrings: Lying face up, wrap a towel around the arch of the right foot, extend your leg and pull toward you gently, keeping hips and back on the ground. Strive to hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the left leg. The knee can remain slightly bent during this exercise if the hamstrings are tight.

Quadriceps: Standing straight with knees, hips, and shoulders aligned and abdominals tight, bend the right knee, drawing the right heel toward your buttocks. Reach the right hand around to hold the top of the right foot (use a towel or strap if necessary). Strive to hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the left leg. (You can also do this stretch lying on your side or stomach.)

Inner thighs: Sitting, place the soles of the feet together, and pull up slightly on the feet, hinging your body forward.

Calves: Using a wall for balance, step the right foot as far behind you as you can with your leg straight and the heel down. Lean forward, slightly bending the left leg. Repeat with your left foot behind you.

Originally published July 14, 2004.
Medically udpated June 22, 2005.

SOURCES: Michael Anthony George, fitness trainer; owner, Integrated Motivational Fitness, Los Angeles. Robyn Stuhr, exercise physiologist; administrative director, Women's Sports Medicine Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York. Aliesa George, owner, Centerworks Pilates, Wichita, Kan.

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Last Editorial Review: 7/18/2005 7:41:14 PM