It’s amazing to watch some of the guys and girls at the gym stretch before and/or after their workout. I often find myself thinking, “Where did you learn to stretch like that?!”. The truth of the matter is, most people have never learned how to stretch properly. Is this a big problem? Yes, yes it is. If you want to avoid injury and maximize your strength and muscle gain, stretching is extremely important.
And even more, stretching correctly is far more important. So I’ll offer my observations to improve the form and effectiveness that you can gain from your stretching routine.
- Don’t use the stretch machines: I find those machines to be not only almost worthless but they provide a greater chance of injury in most cases! I’ll borrow a useful concept from yoga: organic vs. muscular energy. Muscular energy is about engaging your muscles to create a strong container in your body. Using the stretch machines only engages organic energy, which essentially means you’re like a limp noodle stretching your muscles. When you stretch on the mat or on the floor, you can engage your muscular and organic energy, to create a strong and flexible container, which is what we want to prevent injury and build strength, and everything you can do on a machine, you can do in a regular stretch.
- When you engage your muscles, you also can stretch further: Yep, I know it’s counterintuitive, but when you engage your muscles in the stretch, you create a stronger container to stretch further and of course far more safely. I’m not saying flex as hard as you can, but engage your muscles in the stretch and you’ll be able to stretch more deeply than you ever could before.
- Keep your feet hip width apart: When you’re stretching down to your toes or on the mat, keep your feet hip width apart.
- Activate your toes: Always keep your feet and toes activated! This goes along with muscular energy. Let’s say you’re doing a seated forward fold, keeping those feet activated will give you that sensation of building a strong container. It will also encourage proper alignment in your body, which helps to prevent injury down the road. So keep those toes flexed and pointed.
- Keep a microbend in the knees: This not only prevents injury, but encourages muscular engagement in the legs. A slight bend in the knees can be adjusted as needed if you want to increase or decrease the stretch.
- Shoulders down the back: This is going to be a universal tip. Even in a forward fold, your shoulder blades should be moving down the back instead of all crunched up by your ears and neck. This creates space in the back and aligns your shoulders where they should naturally be.
A quick warm-up routine. I usually do a 5-minute stretching routine before I start my workout. Nothing crazy but usually looks like this. Standing forward fold, plank(top of push up), down dog, runners lunge, seated forward fold. This simple routine will stretch out your legs, lower back, warm up the shoulders, and also stretch out the lats.
Hold the stretch for a little longer than normal to give your body the chance to really stretch out. This can happen after 1-2 minutes, depending on how tight your muscles are. If you follow these simple guidelines, I am confident you’ll get more out of your stretching routine to prevent injury and warm up your muscles. Hell, you may even notice some decent strength gains!