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Many men neglect stretching as part of their overall wellbeing. You might think, “I’m not an athlete, I don’t need to stretch” – but really, you do. Most people today spend a lot of time sitting. Over time, this leads to certain muscles becoming overly stretched (for example, the upper back) and the opposing muscles (in the chest) becoming overly tight. This leads to poor posture, limited range of motion, and often, chronic pain. Even if you aren’t sitting for most of the day, you still perform the same basic movements day in and day out, which again leads to muscle imbalance.
Incorporating a few minutes of stretching into your day has many health benefits outside of improving your range of motion: it opens up your breathing, reduces stress, and helps promote the flow of synovial fluid (the fluid in the joints that keeps them moving smoothly).
The Best Time to Stretch
The OLD SCHOOL way of thinking was that you should stretch before exercise, to “limber up.” Now we know that this is incorrect, because many guys simply push their stretches too hard and end up tearing cold muscles. A better approach is to warm up a bit, then stretch, then do your workout, and then stretch again.
However, stretching in the morning is extremely beneficial. If you stretch first thing in the morning, your body is still relaxed from sleeping and hasn’t yet “settled” into its customary position (i.e. sitting, or doing the same limited motions repeatedly). In other words, the muscles are warm and supple in the morning, so it’s a perfect time to work on posture and flexibility – and in the process, get some blood flowing to your organs and your brain. It’s a great way to start the day!
The DO’s of Stretching
Done wrong, stretching can do more harm than good so here are a few important points to keep in mind.
- Focus on the area you’re stretching so that you’re very aware of each plateau you reach: you’ll reach what you think is a stopping point but if you relax into it (don’t push!) and breathe deeply, that muscle will release just a bit and you can go deeper into the stretch.
- Don’t just stretch the areas that feel good to stretch – they’re already flexible, which is why it feels good. Target the areas that are tight and uncomfortable to avoid overstretching certain muscles and neglecting others.
- Don’t force it! It’s okay to feel discomfort, but not pain. Back off if it really hurts, and focus instead on holding the stretch just before the pain point.
- Stick with it, because just like building muscles takes time, so does regaining flexibility.
The DONT’s of Stretching
Here’s what not to do, so you actually enjoy the stretching routine and avoid injury.
- Don’t bounce!! Forget what your gym teacher taught you as a kid, bouncing is the fastest way to tear a muscle. Instead, go as far as you can (without pain); relax as much as you can; and breathe deeply. Give the muscle a chance to relax and stretch!
- Don’t rush! Don’t just go into a deep stretch, especially if your muscles are tight. Ease into it, slowly and deliberately, in a very controlled manner, and always be mindful of your body’s natural stopping point. Flexibility will improve with time and the stopping point will change, but not if you tear the muscle.
- Stretch opposing muscles equally. For example, if your hamstrings are tight, it’s going to feel much better to stretch the quads (the opposing muscles) and it’s tempting to neglect the hamstrings, especially if you are really stiff and tight there. Make sure you don’t neglect the muscles that really need it!
- Don’t hold your breath! Never hold your breath, because it unconsciously creates tension in the muscles. Breathe in and out deeply and slowly as you stretch. When you reach the point where you can’t stretch any more, hold the position and focus on your breathing. After a little while you should feel the muscle relax and ‘give’ just a little more. That’s progress!
Morning Stretching Routines
Do your morning stretches immediately after getting out of bed, while your muscles are still warm and relaxed.
- The Neck Stretch: people who sit a lot at work tend to have a lot of neck and upper body stiffness. Tip your right ear toward your right shoulder, gently pushing down on your head with your right hand. At the same time, reach for the floor with your left hand. Hold… breathe… and switch sides.
- Chest Release: place both arms straight out behind your back, interlocking your fingers. Keeping your arms straight, lift them toward the ceiling as you pull your shoulders back and open your chest. This is great for people who sit at the computer all day!
- Upper Back Stretch: Put your hands straight out in front of you and lower your chin to your chest. Then, pull your shoulder blades together as you raise your hands slightly.
- Side Stretch: stand with your feet hip width apart. Put your arms above your head. Grab your left wrist with your right hand, and bend to the right. Come back up to the starting position and repeat to the left.
- Yoga Cat: start with your hands and knees on the floor. Tuck your chin and arch your back up like a cat. Hold for a few breaths, then invert the stretch by raising your chin and arching your belly toward the floor.
- Hip Flexor Stretch: start in a lunge position with your right foot in front of you and your left foot flat on the ground behind you. Keeping your back straight, lean forward until you feel the pull in your left leg and hip. Hold for a few breaths, switch legs, and repeat.
- The Cobra: lie on the floor face down. Place your hands flat on the floor with your palms right at your shoulders. Push up with your arms and lift your chin to the floor while squeezing your buttocks and keeping your hips on the floor. This stretches the muscles in your chest, hips and stomach area.
- Hamstring Stretch: standing with your feet hip width apart, slightly bend your knees and bend forward to touch your toes (or as close as you can). This should be a smooth and controlled movement with no bouncing. Go as low as you can, hold and breathe, come back to starting and repeat.
As you can see, these are a few simple stretches that don’t take a lot of time, energize your body and set you up for the day.
Caution: if you feel cold in the morning, put on some warm sweatpants and sweatshirt to keep your muscles supple. If you stick to these guidelines and think long-term, you’ll develop greater flexibility and range of motion. You can also do these stretches before and after exercise, provided you warm up first and avoid stretching cold muscles.