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Lisa Cannon has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She writes about everything from the health benefits of journal writing to the best ways to recycle computer hardware. She lives in beautiful Portland, Ore.
When it comes to workouts, flexibility exercises often get ignored in favor of their more popular cousins, cardiovascular and strength training. And yet, stretching and flexibility exercises are vital to your overall health. Flexibility exercises can not only help stretch muscles, they can protect you against injury, improve your posture, give you more freedom of movement, and release muscle tension.
Here are five different tips for flexibility training. As always, be sure to check in with your health care provider before diving in to any new exercise routine.
1. Warm up those muscles first Just like grabbing that barbell before warming up can be a recipe for muscle strain, stretching without a warm-up can lead to serious injuries. Before you stretch, always spend a few minutes warming up to loosen up your muscles. Examples include walking, marching in place, or slowly riding a bike. If your exercise program includes a cardiovascular workout, be sure to stretch after the cool-down part of your program. And make certain your heart rate has slowed down before you start stretching.
2. Go slowly and breathe deeply Each stretch should be done slowly and held for about 10 to 20 seconds. Don't bounce while you stretch, especially once you get to the end of your reach. Bouncing can injure your muscles--and it doesn't do any good anyway. Know your limits, and when you reach them, let it go. Pushing yourself beyond the boundaries of your muscles can lead to strains and tears. Remember to take long, deep breaths while you're stretching. Holding your breath prevents your muscles from getting the oxygen they need to do their job.
3. Find the right stretch routine for your level Ideally, you should work with a trainer to find the right stretching and flexibility exercises for you. That way, you can work each muscle group in turn--and your trainer can help you decide which ones you really need to focus on. If increasing your flexibility is your whole focus--say you're just getting back into regular exercise and are not very limber--consider signing up for flex-focused workouts like yoga, tai chi, or Pilates.
4. Pay attention to tight muscle groups Where do you store stress? The jaw, neck, shoulders and chest are common areas for tightness and tension. If you've sustained injuries in parts of your body, like your knees or ankles, you may be extra tight there. You'll need to focus your flexibility training to play to your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. Otherwise, you might miss areas that need help--and injure them during your workout.
5. Expand your mind as well as your muscles Tension and tightness aren't just for your body. Your brain needs "stretching," too! Yoga practice often focuses on quieting the busy, frazzled mind, and with good reason. When you focus on what your body is actually doing, instead of wondering what to make for dinner tonight or what you'll say in tomorrow's meeting, you're more likely to reap the benefits of the work you're doing in the moment. Listening to music and paying attention to your breathing can help you relax and really focus as you stretch. If your mind wanders, bring it back to what you're doing.
As you get older, it's likely you'll appreciate your flexibility more and more. Keeping limber can prevent stiffness, improve your athletic performance, and make it easier to enjoy the small moments of life--like bending over to pick up something off the floor! So if you want to be able to touch your toes today, tomorrow and 20 years from now, start stretching now.