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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I hear different things about stretching - some places say I should stretch after warming up and before working out. Other times I hear I'm supposed to stretch after I've finished with the workout. Which is right?

(Article continued below.)

In a perfect world, you would stretch after warming up, between each set of exercises and after you finished your workout. You can never stretch too much. Flexibility is fully one third of a balanced physical fitness program (you already know the other two - cardio and strength training). Unfortunately, very few people devote more than a few quick minutes to stretching their muscles. A lot skip it altogether, claiming that they don't have the time. They're doing their bodies a serious disservice. Exercisers who don't stretch are putting themselves at risk for injury, limiting their muscles' range of motion and encouraging muscle aches and stiffness.

Here are some benefits of stretching regularly:

  • It makes muscles longer and leaner. This gives them better range of motion and better flexibility. And unless you're a serious body builder, you probably prefer the look of leaner muscles to bulky ones, too.
  • Your muscles won't feel as sore after a hard workout.
  • It improves circulation.
  • It reduces stress and muscle tension.
  • It reduces your risk of injury.

And let's not forget:

  • It feels wonderful!

Because of time constraints, often it's nearly impossible to devote much stretching time to a workout. If that's the case with you, then forego the pre-workout stretch in favor of stretching after your workout. You should always stretch muscles after they have been exercised. In addition, muscles are best stretched when they're warm. Think of your muscles like a piece of taffy; when is taffy most pliable - after it has just been taken out of the refrigerator or after it's been sitting in the summer sun for a while? To get the most benefit from stretching, your muscles need to be pliable. Devote ten minutes or more to stretching at the end of an exercise session and make sure you hit every muscle group that was worked (and if you have some muscles that are still sore from yesterday's workout, you may want to gently stretch them, too).

A few more rules of stretching:

  • Dynamic stretching (stretching combined with active movement) is best done pre-workout, while static stretching is done when you're finished exercising.
  • Each static stretch should last at least 20 to 30 seconds to get the most out of it (focus on how it's feeling and you won't get bored).
  • Stretching should never, ever be painful. Pushing a muscle beyond the point of comfort will cause it to rebel and become less flexible. Instead, go to the point where you feel a gentle stretch, take a few breaths and let your muscle settle in, then go a little deeper and take a few more breaths.
  • You should always breathe when you stretch. It helps the muscle - and you - relax.
  • The older you get, the more crucial it becomes for you to stretch. But those of you in your 20s should keep this in mind: if you stretch a lot now, you will be in far better shape in a couple of decades. Consider stretching an investment in your future health, just as college was an investment in your future career. Many professional dancers stay active for a lifetime, and much of this is due to all the stretching they are required to do.

Your workout shouldn't be the only time you stretch, either - you should stretch occasionally throughout the day, especially when you've been sitting or standing for long periods of time. And if you can devote one hour a week to nothing but stretching and flexibility, you body will reward you with more fluid, mobile movements and less morning stiffness. There are many good stretching videos on the market. You may also want to check out Bob Anderson's classic book, Stretching, or another book on stretching and flexibility.

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