Whether you’re training for a big event or just trying to get into shape, a key piece of any exercise routine is stretching. While everyone remembers touching your toes for 30 seconds in P.E. class, new research shows there’s a better way to stretch. Think “moving” instead of “holding.”
A plethora of studies support the use of dynamic stretches that involve getting muscles moving rather than holding them in one place, prior to a workout. The new general consensus is that static stretching may help improve flexibility after a workout. But prior to an activity, static stretches actually decrease performance for up to 30 minutes. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, warms up the muscles and the nervous system, increasing blood flow and preparing the body to perform.
Be it a basketball player’s jump height, a golfer’s club-head speed or a soccer player’s high-speed movements, dynamic stretching prior to the activity has been shown to improve overall performance.
“The reasons that the dynamic stretches work so well is that they are done in all different ‘planes’ or positions of movement,” explains Renée Compton, a certified athletic trainer, physical therapist assistant and competitive cyclist. “All muscles have fibers going in different directions, so the dynamic stretches work all those different fibers. Plus the activities that we do are more often not straight movements, such as kicking a ball straight. Rather, we often cross our body with our arms or legs, such as what we see in golf or soccer.”
What Compton likes best about dynamic stretches is that you not only stretch the muscle in all different directions, but you also stretch the sheets of fascia that surround groups of muscles.
When starting a dynamic stretching program, Compton warns against being too aggressive when the muscles are still cold. “You need to be careful with the speed and velocity that you do the stretches. I recommend that the person does some kind of a warm-up to increase core body temperature prior to doing these stretches, such as running or riding the stationary bike. And make sure you ‘break a sweat,’ which is generally after about five minutes.”
After your dynamic warm-up, you’re ready to start dynamic stretching. Although there are specific dynamic stretches for runners, cyclists, soccer players and even golfers, here are some general stretches that work well for major muscle groups involved in many exercise and sport activities. You can do any of these, demonstrated here by Meghan Walker, five to 10 times each to stretch properly.
LEG CRADLE WALK: While walking forward, bring your foot in and let your knee fall out, grab your foot lightly with your hands; repeat on the other side.
ROTATIONAL LUNGE: While walking forward, step into a lunge and twist your trunk toward the side of your forward leg; repeat on the other side.
INCHWORM: While on your hands and feet, walk your hands forward, then walk your feet to your hands.
CROSSOVER STEP: Starting with your toes pointed out, bring your right leg across the left while turning your leg in; repeat on the other side.
IRON CROSS: While lying on your back, keeping your arms out and fl at on the floor, cross one leg over the other; repeat on the other side.
STARTING BLOCK: While in position at the starting line, raise your buttocks up while keeping your heels on the floor and lifting your toes.
REVERSE HAMSTRING: While in a squatted position with your hands on the floor, raise your buttocks up while straightening your knees.