The Importance of Stretching

I know we’ve all heard it before: stretching is an important part of health and wellness. But how many of us actually take those words to heart and put them into practice? Many excuses for not stretching are often made. There isn’t enough time. I don’t know how to do it properly. I don’t have to do it if I don’t hurt. However, neglecting any part of a proper exercise routine, including stretching, can have a negative impact on various parts of the body. Muscles can be strained. Tendons can develop inflammation or, to a more severe degree, tear. Nerves can become entrapped and compressed. The need for stretching is obvious.

Most people, if they do incorporate stretching into their fitness routine, do it minimally. I am of the opinion that stretching should be an integral part of any workout. It should be done prior to cardiovascular or strengthening exercise so as to properly loosen up the muscles so that they can perform optimally. Doing a light warm-up, such as a short walk, a short, light jog or bike ride, or a few jumping jacks, can get the blood flowing through the body and better prepare muscles for a good, deep pre-workout stretch. Stretching should also be done once a workout is completed. It is at this point that the muscles are maximally warm, and post-workout stretching will help to minimize the tightening of muscles that can occur after physical strain, which can oftentimes result in soreness and potential injury. And, keep in mind, stretching can and should be done during a workout as well, such as in between sets of strengthening exercises. So the bottom line is, stretching should be done at all points throughout a workout: beforehand, during, and afterward.

While there are many ways to stretch all muscles, I do have my favorites. As the legs are the body parts we use most throughout each day (for standing, for walking, for going up and down stairs), leg muscles are often the tightest in most people. As such, I’ll focus on leg muscle stretching. When stretching any body part, whether it be the neck, an arm, the back, or a leg, it is important to address any and all major muscle groups. For the leg, I like to focus on the hamstrings, the hip rotators, the quadriceps, and the calves. Stretches should generally be held for at least 30-60 seconds and done anywhere from 3-5 times on each side.

My favorite hamstring stretch is done in standing in front of a step, and preferably a step with at least one railing. While holding the railing for support, prop the leg to be stretched up on the step, and, while keeping the back straight, bend forward at the hip until a stretch is felt in the back of the thigh and perhaps into the back of the knee.

My favorite hip rotator stretch is done in sitting. While sitting on a comfortable surface, cross one leg over the other. Using your hands, pull the crossed leg’s knee up and across, as if you are trying to pull it to the opposite shoulder, until you feel an adequate pull in the buttock of the crossed leg. Leaning forward slightly can enhance the stretch.

My favorite quadriceps stretch is performed in standing next to something that can be held for support, such as a railing, sturdy chair, or countertop. Once you are standing with support from one hand, simply bend the opposite side’s knee and grasp the foot/ankle with your free hand. Pull that foot toward your buttock until a stretch is felt in the front of the bent leg’s hip and thigh. The stretch can be enhanced by leaning backward slightly, but be careful not to fall or over-stretch.

My favorite calf stretch is done in standing off of the edge of a step, again preferable with at least one handrail. Step up onto a step with both feet. While holding the railing for support, move one foot back off of the edge of the step so only the forefoot is still on the step. Next, allow that heel to drop so the foot is in a “toe up” position. In this way, you are using gravity and your body weight to provide the stretch. Drop the heel until an adequate pull is felt in the back of the lower leg, possibly in the Achilles tendon, and perhaps in the back of the knee.

Hopefully, this article provided you with a better understanding of why stretching is important, when it should be performed, and how to do some good stretches for the legs. Of course, your physical therapist can give you varied stretches specific to your case, and we here at Advanced PMR are always happy to help. So stay loose, and stay healthy.

Rob Kohutanycz, PT, DPT

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