What if we told you that the most important part of your workout wasn’t getting your heart rate above a certain number or challenging yourself to lift more weight than before? It may come as a surprise to many, but the act of warming up and cooling down—and more specifically, stretching—is one of the best things you can do to ensure you don’t end up with injuries or pain.
If you pull a muscle or tweak a joint, your workout routine will need to be put on hold. That’s something that can be difficult for many people when they need to stay continuously motivated during the winter months. Not only that, but injuries could be more serious as we get older and our bodies heal more slowly.
If there was ever a time to learn the art of the stretch, it’s now. Winter’s cold has our muscles feeling more tense and a nice, relaxing stretch can do the body good.
Should I just head to a yoga class?
Although many of us associate yoga with stretching and flexibility, you don’t necessarily need to head to a class to perform this pre- or post-workout ritual. The benefit of a yoga class is that an instructor can guide you through mindful movement, which is highly important if you want to gain the benefits of stretching without overdoing it. However, you can recreate mindful stretching anywhere—and if you know the basics of alignment, your stretching routine doesn’t need to take an hour to complete.
Bringing balance to the body
The benefits of stretching go beyond feeling more relaxed after your workout. In fact, stretching can help to balance your body, which is a key to healthy kinesthetic function. Imbalances, such as when one hamstring is tighter than the other, can lead to pains, aches, and an increased risk of injury. A tight muscle, as in our hamstring example, can pull on other muscles, ligaments and joints surrounding it, leading to an achy lower back as well as hips and knees that feel out of whack.
Stretches to help you loosen up
If you want to incorporate more stretching into your routine (and after reading about the benefits, we hope you do) here are some easy-to-perform movements to help your body feel more flexible and relaxed:
Standing Hamstring Stretch (aka Forward Fold)
Stand with your feet hip width apart (or closer together, if that feels more comfortable), bend at the waist, and allow your upper body to stretch toward the floor while you keep your legs straight or slightly bent at the knees. Your head can feel heavy as it hangs toward the floor beneath you, and may grab the backs of your legs with your hands. Hold this pose anywhere between 45 seconds to two minutes (and remember to breathe).
Lunge (with optional Spinal Twist)
For this stretch, keep one foot forward while using the other to step back into a lunge position. Bring your hands down to the ground but try to keep your knee off the floor. This is the traditional runner’s lunge. If you’re not pregnant, and you would like to add a twist, try bringing the hand that is on the outside of your front foot up toward the ceiling while your other hand stays put. Repeat this on the other side.
With arms above your head, grab one elbow with your opposite hand and allow the rest of the arm to fall toward the middle of your back. Repeat on the other side.
Figure Four Stretch
For this one, lie on your back with your feet planted on the floor and your knees bent. Pick up your right foot and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Lace your right arm through the triangle created by your legs and clasp your hands behind your left thigh. Now hug your left knee in toward your chest. Breathe while holding this stretch for between 30 seconds and two minutes. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
These are just a few of the stretches you can perform at the gym or at home. By stretching your muscles and creating more flexibility in your body, you can avoid injuries and post-workout stiffness as well as common aches and pains. Incorporate these movements into both your pre- and post-workout routine for best results!