When I was in high school, a mere 25 years ago, gym class always started with all of us stretching after attendance was taken and the kids "settled down." I wish I had known then what I know now, because it appears we were doing things backwards.
Most of us learned that before a physical activity, we must "warm-up." Somewhere along the line that transformed into stretching. While I'm a big advocate of warming up, stretching your muscles as the first order of business before a workout is just plain wrong. It makes sense too. Your muscles are tightest and least able to stretch when they are "cold" and haven't had any activity. Contrast that to what happens to your muscles with just a little bit of increased blood flow, and the muscles become warmer and are more apt to stretch appropriately.
How can you use this phenomenon to appropriately warm up and avoid muscle pulls, tears and other injuries that could side line you for the next few months? Start out with a little bit of aerobic activity first. If you're going to workout at the gym, get on a stationary bike or treadmill. How hard should you push? - Just enough to break a sweat and have trouble carrying on a conversation if you try to talk. The length of time one needs is generally about 5 minutes. That's enough to get the blood flowing to your muscles and get your mindset into the workout.
After that, get on a floor mat and start gently stretching your muscles, especially those that you plan on working that day. The best type of stretch is one where you stretch until you feel some tightness or resistance to going further. DO NOT stretch to the point of pain- your body is trying to tell you something there. Listen to it! Also, DO NOT bounce at the peak of the stretch- that will cause a reflex contraction of the muscle which can lead to strains and potential tears. For specific stretching exercise ideas, I advise purchasing a fitness book or checking out a website or fitness magazine.
If you're going to lift weights, the aerobic warm up and stretch is a great way to start, but I would also add another idea. Before doing each weight training exercise, go through the exercise with about half the weight you will use doing the real set. This will recruit the very same muscle fibers you'll be training in the exact same way you'll use them. If you're scheduled for bench press, do several reps of bench press at half the weight you plan to use, or get on the floor and do 20 push-ups. You'll perform better and decrease your risk of injury.
If you don't have access to a stationary bicycle or treadmill, some brisk walking or jogging can be useful. I'm also a big fan of an underutilized exercise, jumping rope (stay tuned to this blog for more about jumping rope in the future). In addition, don't ignore cooling down after workouts either. Actually, stretching there is probably a good idea, as is another 5 minutes or so of aerobic exercise. By doing this, you'll get the blood back into your central circulation and out of your muscles at the end of the workout.
Of course, as with any fitness issue, it is best to talk about your goals, routines and musculoskeletal issues with your primary care provider before starting.
Published On: July 16, 2008