Stretching muscles after a workout is just as important as working them during an exercise program. Whether the workout routine of choice is jogging, cycling, elliptical, aerobic dance or weight training, concluding each session with a cool down period that includes stretching will restore and condition those tired muscles for improved flexibility and endurance.
The Final Stretch of Your Workout
Stretching muscles after a workout is ideal because the muscles are warm and the blood flow is elevated. Such conditions maximize the beneficial muscle responses to stretching, thus minimizing the risk for injury. Over time, stretching improves muscle elasticity, extending the range of motion for muscles along the joints. In addition to improved athletic performance, stretching also offers the long-term rewards of better balance, a straighter posture and a feeling of overall wellbeing later into the golden years.
At the end of a workout session, take a five to ten minute period of cool down by walking. This gradually brings the elevated heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature back down to resting states. Follow this cool down with a few stretches, which may help to minimize stiffness and soreness from setting in later.
For each hour of workout time, engage in some static stretches for ten minutes. In addition to stretching the major muscle groups, which include the calves, thighs, shoulders, upper back and lower back, include stretches that will target the specific muscle groups that were utilized during the workout. Avoid bouncing and keep each stretch to a gentle pull. Bouncing can inflict tears in the muscle fibers, which results in scar tissue formation. As scar tissue builds up, the muscle becomes tighter and its ability to flex and extend diminishes. Stretching muscles to the point of experiencing pain during the stretch is also counterproductive. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds, and proceed with three to four repetitions of each.
Six Basic Stretches
These six basic stretches provide a good foundation for a stretching session that should be incorporated into every workout routine. For additional stretches to target other specific muscles or to safely strengthen muscles that have been previously injured, seek guidance from your trainer or physical therapist.
To stretch hamstrings and calves simultaneously, begin by facing a wall and placing your hands on the wall for support. Stand with one foot behind the other. Both feet should be pointing forward. Bend the knee of the forward leg until you feel the stretch while keeping the heels of both feet flat on the ground. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch positions of the feet and repeat.
For the quadriceps in your thighs, stand next to a wall or other sturdy structure for support. Standing with the knees together, lift your left foot, take hold of the ankle with your left hand, and pull back so that the foot ends up behind your back and you are standing on the right foot. Pull until you feel the stretch in the front of your left thigh, tightening the abdominal muscles at the same time. If necessary, place your right hand on the wall to keep your balance. Hold for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat.
Standing with your feet apart, reach down to touch the right foot with both hands, keeping both legs straight, until you feel the pull in the lower back on the opposite side. Hold for 30 seconds, then reach to touch the ground in between your feet. Hold for 30 seconds, and follow up by reaching to touch the left foot and holding for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle.
Standing with your arms extended forward and elbows bent, pull both shoulder blades together until you feel the pull in the upper back muscles. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then repeat.
For shoulders, stand and bring the left arm horizontally around the front of your body. Position the right arm vertically in front of and against the left arm. Use the right arm to pull the left arm further to the right until you feel the stretch in the left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
For side muscles, stand with your feet apart and both arms relaxed. Extend your right arm outward and bring it up high as though you are reaching for the ceiling. Arch your upper body slightly to the left and bring the right hand over, as though reaching for the left hand corner of the ceiling, until you feel the stretch in the muscles along your right ribcage. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.