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If old exercise habits die hard, then preworkout static stretching is clinging to life support. While static stretching can help improve flexibility and increase range of motion when done postworkout, lengthening a muscle this way before intense exercise does not adequately prepare you for the work ahead.
“Static stretching tends to ‘turn off’ your muscles,” says Julia Ladewski, a strength-and-conditioning coach and program director at Parisi Speed School in Schererville, Indiana.
“When you work out, you want to be awake, alert and ready to go,” adds Chris Frederick, physical therapist and co-director of the Stretch to Win Institute in Tempe, Arizona, and co-author of the book Stretch to Win. “If I’m going to sit there and count 30 seconds to stretch each muscle group, I’m telling my nervous system that we’re going to relax.”
Obviously, sleepy muscles mean poor performance and perhaps even injury. Numerous studies, including a 2011 experiment out of Oregon State University, which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, have shown that static stretching done at the wrong time can actually contribute to injuries such as muscle pulls and strains but that in contrast, preworkout dynamic stretching can improve power output.
“Dynamic stretching gets the muscles and motor units firing and provides pliability,” Ladewski says. In other words, because these stretches are done using continuous motion, they serve to heat up the joints, ligaments and tendons, helping prevent injury.
Dynamic stretching also has real-life benefits, not the least of which is helping alleviate pain in the lower back, shoulders and neck. “A lot of people sit at a desk all day or have jobs that restrict them from moving,” Ladewski says. Dynamic stretches such as these can help relieve some of that pain as well as teach the movement patterns that could prevent it in the future.
Try these stretching routines before strength training and sports activities, or even do them as a midday pick-me-up at work. And as for those preworkout static stretches, pull the plug already!
This plan includes three routines, courtesy of Ladewski, one each for an upper-, a lower- and a total-body workout. Do five minutes of light cardio (such as jumping rope or jogging slowly), then choose the routine that will best complement the workout you’re doing that day.
Do your reps using continuous — “dynamic” — movement while still moving through a complete range of motion. Though these are stretches, they should be done at a fairly good clip — quickly enough to warm you up but slowly enough so you don’t risk injury. Once you’ve completed the routine, go right into your regularly scheduled workout.
This routine activates all the muscles of the upper body and core, stretching the normally tight pecs, front debts and lats, and strengthening the commonly weak upper back and neck. Do each pair of moves twice through before starting your workout.
The routine readies you lower half to exercise, stretching the usually tight hip flexors and strengthening the usually weak hamstrings and glutes.
*Per leg (not applicable to inchworm)
This routine should be done before sporting activities that use your body synergistically or before a total-body workout or group fitness class.
Targets: rear delts, rhomboids, trapezius
Setup: Hold a resistance band in front of your chest with your arms extended parallel to the floor and your hands outside shoulder width.
Move: Keeping your arms straight, contract the rear delts and upper back to pull your hands apart until your arms are directly out to your sides. Slowly let the band pull your hands back to the start position. Repeat in a continuous yet controlled motion.
Tip: Keep your chest lifted and your head neutral.
Targets: total body
Setup: Stand with your feet together, arms at your sides.
Move: Jump your feet apart, toes parallel, and quickly raise your hands over your head. Jump your feet back together and bring your arms down to complete one rep.
Tip: Stay on the balls of your feet to maintain a bouncy, athletic movement at a quick pace.
Targets: total body
Setup: Stand with your arms out to your sides.
Move: Jump your feet apart. As you jump your feet together, cross your arms in front of your chest, alternating which arm crosses over top every other rep.
Targets: rhomboids, erector spinae, obliques, pectorals
Setup: Get on all fours and place one hand on the side of your head, elbow bent.
Move: Twist your torso and shoulders to touch your elbow to the opposite forearm. Then twist in the opposite direction, opening your body to the side and reaching your elbow upward. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.
Tip: Each time you twist, try to go a little farther and stretch a little more.
Targets: hamstrings, calves, lower back
Setup: Stand with your feet together, arms at your sides.
Move: Take a small step forward and dig your heel into the ground, toes flexed. Fold forward with a flat back and reach your hand toward your toe. Stand back up. Continue, alternating sides.
Tip: Remember to stand up between reps to warm up and stretch your lower back.
Straight-Arm Band Pulldown
Targets: lats, serratus, rear deltoids
Setup: Secure a resistance band to a stationary object at waist height and hold the end with one hand. Take a few steps back to create tension in the band, then, keeping your back flat, lean forward at the waist so your torso is about 45 degrees with the floor. Extend your working arm in front of you, parallel to the floor.
Move: Keeping your arm straight, pull the band down and back in a smooth arc until your arm is in line with your torso. Slowly return to the start position. Complete all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Keep your shoulders square and your abs tight to maintain proper position.
World’s Greatest Stretch
Targets: hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, hips/groin
Setup: Kneel on the floor, then bring your right foot in front so your knee makes a 90-degree angle. Extend your left leg behind you into a runner’s lunge.
Move: Touch your right elbow to the floor inside your right foot, then straighten your right leg, flex your foot, and lift your glutes toward the ceiling while keeping your fingertips on the floor. Hold briefly, then lower your hips and switch sides.
Tip: Don’t rush this move — do each part with good form to stretch thoroughly.
Reverse Lunge & Reach
Targets: hip flexors, quads, side body
Setup: Stand with your feet together, hands clasped in front of you.
Move: Take a large step to the rear with one foot, lunging deeply. Simultaneously reach both arms overhead and lean toward the forward leg. Push off your rear foot and lower your arms to return to the start. Repeat, alternating legs.
Tip: Make sure your front knee makes a 90-degree angle with each repetition.
Targets: abductors, groin
Setup: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands clasped in front of your chest, elbows bent.
Move: Take a large step to the side, toes parallel, and bend your knee to descend into a lateral lunge. Push off that foot to return to the start. Continue, alternating sides.
Tip: Make sure your knees stay over your toes each time you lunge down.
Inchworm With Hip Dip
Targets: hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back
Setup: Stand with your feet together, then place both hands on the floor in front of your feet.
Move: Walk your hands out until you’re in a push-up position. Keeping your arms straight, drop your pelvis toward the floor, then come back into the push-up position and walk your hands back to the start.
Tip: Don’t drop so low as to aggravate your lower back. Go to your own personal level of comfort.
Static Stretching … not dead yet!
It may be antiquated in some respects, but static stretching can still be useful for increasing your range of motion and overall flexibility. Here’s the scoop on how to do it and when:
Save it for later. Do all your static stretching postworkout when your muscles are allowed to relax.
Do them when you’re warm. Doing a static stretch with a cold muscle can lead to a strain or tear, so do your workout or some light cardio such as walking or jogging first, then stretch out.
Take your time: Static stretching can improve flexibility, so hold each stretch for 30 seconds or more.
Breathe deeply: This will oxygenate the muscles and help flush out metabolic wastes.