Stretching and flexibility are often neglected at the expense of higher intensity exercises, like resistance training and cardio. While it’s not a be-all and end-all on the fitness spectrum, stretching is a crucial practice for injury prevention and functional, everyday activities when performed correctly and framed properly around workouts.
In the case of former Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner David Goggins, he found a second wind during his athletic career by instituting a proper stretching regimen. In his book, “Can’t Hurt Me,” he said a stretching expert who worked with the SEAL teams, Joe Hippensteel, described Goggins’ previous habits of performing physical activity without adequate stretching as trying to “inject blood in a frozen steak” because of how little blood was circulating. Goggins’ psoas — the muscles that connect the spine to our lower legs — were so stiff that it shaved two inches off his height, Goggins said. After increasing his flexibility, Goggins said he was in better shape at 43 than he was in his 20s.
Pre-workout: dynamic stretching and warming up
Stretching, combined with movement, plays a vital pre-workout role in getting our bodies warm enough to perform, JMU graduate Andy Allen (’20) said. Allen holds a Masters of Science in kinesiology and is a personal trainer at Future, an app that offers one-on-one, remote personal training. During a warm-up, he said, we can use dynamic stretching — any stretch combined with movement — to increase our heart rate and body temperature so that our joints are able to move more comfortably and blood can flow through our blood vessels more easily.
During a warm-up before resistance training — like a barbell squat — Allen said it’s also important to “potentiate” the motion of the movement we’re about to perform. In the case of a squat, he said this means to do some body weight squats, or squats with just the barbell, before putting 45-pound plates on the bar.
JMU’s University Recreation Center (UREC), Allen said, is already set up to provide students who are walking and commuting via car a proper warm-up. Since the parking lot closest to the facility isn’t directly in front of the building, he said, this prevents you from having to ride an elliptical or treadmill when you arrive.
“If you walk to UREC, that’s part of your warm-up,” Allen said. “If you’re walking to the weight room, you’re walking all the way to the back of the facility.”
With warmer muscles as a result of walking, muscle tissue can increase in length more easily, JMU associate professor in health professions and athletic training teacher Connie Peterson said. To optimize results when stretching first thing in the morning, Peterson said to walk around for 10 minutes or ride a stationary bike for five minutes before performing static — or non-moving — stretches.
When warming up with dynamic stretches, Peterson said versatile stretches to do before leg day in the gym or a run are walking lunges and lunges with a twist. Proper form, she said, includes taking a big step and dropping as low as you can. This can help increase the range of motion in your hip flexors — the front part of the hip that, when adequately stretched, can ease back pain.
“You want to do a warm-up that prepares you to perform,” Peterson said.
While JMU exercise physiology professor Chris Womack said flexibility does “zero” to prevent long-term overuse injuries, arthritis or tendonitis, he said a dynamic stretching warm-up can decrease your risk of muscular strains, tears and pulls. He said dynamic warm-ups should replicate whatever activity you’re about to perform, but at a lower intensity.
When playing sports — even just recreationally — that require running like basketball or soccer, Womack said an adequate warm-up can be three sets of 20-yard sprints that gradually build up to full speed. When performed correctly, Womack said, progressive sprints reduce buildup of the lactic acid, allow you to more comfortably get to your desired heart rate and provide just as much injury prevention as any other pre-competition stretching regimen.
“Warm-ups are powerful,” Womack said. “They’re one of the most underrated performance enhancers there are.”
On the flip side, Peterson said static stretching before a workout can cause muscle fatigue, and Womack said it can decrease performance if done before resistance training. Womack said it “drives [him] crazy” when a football team comes out of the locker room after sitting for a long duration before a game or after halftime and starts doing standing toe touches right away.
To avoid the decrease in strength that a 30-second static stretch hold gives, Womack said Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching should be performed instead before a resistance workout. This method of stretching involves holding a static stretch for 10 seconds, contracting the muscle, then holding the stretch again.
Post-workout: static stretches
While detrimental before a workout, static stretching is beneficial after exercise and even before bed. Peterson said static stretching aids muscle recovery, and while we’re sleeping, our bodies go through recovery processes. This can make static stretching a good complement to sleep in the evening hours, she said.
Although pre-exercise stretching is “way overrated,” Womack said, static stretching can be performed post-exercise to improve flexibility and has been shown to be more effective than dynamic active stretching in increasing hamstring range of motion before strenuous physical activity after a five-minute jog. The time we should spend holding these stretches, however, has research that’s “all over the place,” Peterson said.
She said that how long our static stretching routines are held for greatly depends on how much time we have. A full routine can take as long as 30 minutes, but the sets of the holds can divide that time. Peterson said if you were to hold 10 stretches for three minutes each, then you wouldn’t need to do any other sets, but an increasing number of sets are needed the less time you hold a stretch.
“We often say a minimum for static stretching is around 10-15 seconds,” Peterson said. “I think somewhere in that 30-60-second range is probably optimal. I don’t see a lot of benefit of holding it for three minutes.”
Functional stretches that combat our sedentary lifestyles
Even when not bookending workouts, stretching can provide benefits to college students because of how long we sit during classes. JMU dietetics professor Jeremy Akers said many injuries come as a result of sitting all the time and having the pressure off our joints, specifically with nagging hamstring, knee and hip problems.
Every hour, Akers said, you need to get up and do something — even if it’s a mundane task like walking your dog, filling up your water bottle or just pacing around your workspace. When we don’t get up for long durations of time, we’re not lengthening or shortening our muscles, which puts us at greater risk for pulling a muscle when it needs to inevitably extend at a longer stretch rate for a later task.
“It’s kind of like a car,” Akers said. “If it sits all the time, it doesn’t have that lubrication. Things get rusty.”
Static stretches for the hamstrings, calves and hip flexors, Peterson said, should be emphasized to prevent such rust because they’re the most dormant when we’re sitting. Anyone can do the stretches because they don’t require any equipment — she said you can do a “very comprehensive” stretching program using just your body.
For stretching hamstrings, Peterson recommends any variation of a “sit and reach.” In this hold, prop your foot up and reach for your toes, but Peterson said many people do them wrong: Make sure your hips are square where your leg is rather than having the hips rotated to the side. She also said to make sure you’re not rounding your lower back as your reach. Instead, keep the back straight and move through the pelvis so your chest is over your legs.
A “very simple step stretch” will suffice for stretching calves, Peterson said. This stretch involves putting your toes on a step and letting your heel drop off it.
Peterson said college students should also stretch their hip flexors because they can get tight when sitting, and a tall lunge can serve as a solution. When performing the stretch, keep your body upright, put one of your knees on the ground and then lean onto the front leg while preventing the back from arching.
All of these stretches can be enhanced by engaging the core, Paterson said. Resistance bands and yoga blocks can also enhance stretches. The bands help with providing additional options in stretches — like pulling your leg closer to your body during hamstring stretches — and yoga blocks can allow your body to relax if you don’t have the flexibility to go too deep into a stretch, Peterson said.
Upper body regions — specifically neck and shoulder muscles — can also get tight when sitting, Peterson said. Loosening the neck can be achieved by circling it in both directions, while rolling the shoulders back-to-front can do the trick in that region.
If you’re performing these stretches regularly, an increase in flexibility is imminent. To supplement this, muscle growth must simultaneously be increasing to control the increased range of motion — or else it’s harder to maintain joint centration and stability, Peterson said.
“You need to have a well-balanced, well-integrated approach,” Peterson said. “Flexibility is one component of that, but so is good joint range of motion, so is good adequate strength.”
Yoga: stretching mindfully to reduce stress
Many college students get caught in a perpetual academics-party cycle for eight months of the year, and it may seem like there’s no break from the monotony.
Yoga might provide that break.
Not only can yoga help increase your flexibility, but it puts emphasis on breathing and has roots in meditation. The latter two qualities of the ancient practice help slow down what can seem like an overwhelming whirlwind of commitments and deadlines that college can bring.
Suzanne McCahill Perrine, director of The Center — a yoga and pilates studio in Harrisonburg — said her life “felt different” after attending a weekend yoga workshop in Charlottesville in spring of 2006. She said a combination of the postures, the voice of her instructor, the chants and the community felt like it made her heart break open.
“I felt like there was a dirty window and someone just cleaned it off for me,” McCahill Perrine said.
While McCahill Perrine said she keeps her yoga practice “sacred,” she still complements it with strength training and pilates. She also said yoga helps add rhythm to runners’ breath.
“It can be a great tool to balance any physical practice,” McCahill Perrine said. “I don’t think someone should necessarily just be doing yoga.”
For many, yoga can seem like a daunting practice to get into because of how flexible yoga veterans are. But McCahill Perrine said veterans start at the beginning just like everyone else, and prospective practitioners shouldn’t feel alienated. Traditional tight-fitting yoga gear can also create a stigma that drives men away from trying it, but she said shorts and a T-shirt are perfectly acceptable yoga attire.
Still on the fence? McCahill Perrine said to take five deep breaths as you lift your arms slowly on the inhale and drop them on the exhale, then see how you feel.
“That’s yoga,” McCahill Perrine said.
Being busy with classes or clubs doesn’t have to be a barrier for aspiring yogis. McCahill Perrine said immersing in the practice only has to take five, 10 or 20 minutes once or twice a day and doesn’t need to be a one-hour session like many yoga classes are.
“Everyone thinks yoga is that stuff you do with your body, [but] that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” McCahill Perrine said. “The real teachings of yoga go down into the breath, meditation and the way we live our lives … Be inquisitive, be OK with not knowing, and just come into it with a beginner’s mindset.”
Contact Grant Johnson at [email protected] For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health” column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.