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Ten Tips for Smart Stretching

­
stretch.jpgStretch Before or After Exercise?
 There's been a lot of discussion lately about the best time to stretch. Ultimately, there's no right or wrong here. What works for you works for you.

The main point is to be sure to stretch.

Recent exercise physiology studies do show that static stretching (slow, easy stretching) actually reduces muscular power and strength in the short-term. So, for competitive, high-level athletes, static stretching is best done AFTER exercise.

For people in their thirties and beyond, many of whom have had back issues at some time, it may still be a very good idea to do static stretching before exercise. The primary value here is to prepare the muscles, ligaments, and joints of the lower back for work. Static stretching of the big muscles of the legs - the hamstrings, calves, and quads - reflexively loosens and elongates lower back muscles and supporting structures.

So, for many of us, doing our regular stretching routine first, followed by five or ten minutes of a dynamic warm-up, is still the best preparation for a safe, enjoyable, fulfilling workout.
1. Why stretch? Stretching lengthens muscles and improves flexibility.1,2 Also, stretching the big leg muscles - the hamstrings, calves, and quads - simultaneously loosens and lengthens the muscles of your lower back. So, when you stretch, you're helping your back!

2. When to stretch? Recent exercise physiology studies show that static stretching is best done after exercise.3 Pre-exercise "dynamic warm-ups", such as torso twists, arm circles, and light jogging, prepare the body for work. Importantly, for those of us with back issues, it's still a good idea to do the familiar static stretches even before the dynamic warm-up!

3. Don't rush! Stretching is as important as what you're going to do after you stretch. And, if you rush, you might pull a muscle or worse. Be sure to include 10 to 15 minutes of stretching as part of your exercise time.

4. Stretch gently and slowly. You're not trying to accomplish anything while stretching. In other words, you're not trying to stretch "this much" or "this far". Nice and easy does it. Stretching is a Zen activity. There should be nor "effort".

5. Pay attention! If your mind drifts, you're headed for a pulled muscle.

6. Visualize! See (in your mind) what you're doing. Hold a mental visual image of the muscle group, where it comes from, where it goes. Visualization helps establish a brain-muscle connection, making your muscles much smarter!

7. Stretch your hamstrings first. Lie on your back with one knee bent [start with the left leg bent; you'll be stretching the right hamstring]. The left foot is on the floor and the left knee is bent approximately 90 degrees. Holding behind the right knee, gently bring that knee to your chest. Alternate this chest movement with a movement that begins to straighten the right leg in the air. The eventual goal on straightening is to achieve a 90 degree angle (or close to this) between the leg and your torso.

8. CAUTION - Progress may be quite slow. Remember - you are where you are. Stretching is gentle and slow. Alternate the bending and straightening movements gently, achieving a slightly greater straightening each time. You should work each leg for between three and five minutes.

9. Calf stretches - face a wall and place both hands lightly on the wall. Keeping both feet facing front, bend the front knee and place the foot of the leg to be stretched directly behind you. Your weight is being supported by the front leg. The back knee is pretty straight and the back heel is on or close to the floor. Maintain the stretch for 10 seconds, feeling the stretch in the calf as the back heel reaches toward the floor.

10. Quad stretches - stand on your left leg, placing a hand lightly on a wall to support the upright posture. Grasp just above the right ankle with your right hand and bring that heel close to the right buttock. The quadriceps is stretched by bringing the right thigh in line with the left thigh, just as if you were standing on both legs. The knees should also be close, in a line. You should feel a stretching sensation down the right thigh. Imagine a straight line running from your right hip socket all the way to the floor.

1Ferreira GN, et al: Gains in flexibility related to measures of muscular performance. Clin J Sport Med 17(4):276-281, 2007.
2Peeler J, Anderson JE: Effectiveness of static quadriceps stretching in individuals with patellofemoral joint pain. Clin J Sport Med 17(4):234-241, 2007.
3Behm DG, et al: Effect of acute static stretching on force, balance, reaction time, and movement time. Med Sci Sports Exercise (36(8):1397-1402, 2004.

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