It’s hard enough to get motivated to exercise, and it’s certainly a challenge to find time to work out, but when you do, don’t overlook the pre and post-workout stretching exercises routine in an effort to save time and energy. Your warm-up stretches and cool-down are just as crucial to ensuring you take care of your body and you see results. As Shape reports, according to Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, MD, a doctor of sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC, “you need to stretch before the muscles have time to cool down…when the muscle cools, it contracts, and if you try to loosen it up, you can cause injury.” Since we’re assuming you’re working out to improve your body, not do damage to it, you might want to invest some time in your pre and post-workout stretching routines.
But what should you do? Lying down on the floor sounds nice after an intense fitness routine, but is it doing anything? And how do you really ease into a workout? Does 60 seconds of hanging out in the locker room or schmoozing with fellow gym-goers count? (No.) To take the guesswork out of the stretching game, we’ve rounded up some go-to moves that everyone should do before and after their workouts.
For starters, before you begin any workout, you should be drinking water. According to new hydration guidelines for athletes, issued this year by the American College of Sports Medicine, 4 hours before your workout you should “drink 12 ounces of fluid, then weigh yourself. If your urine is the shade of apple juice or darker, plan to gulp 8 to 12 more ounces 2 hours before you exercise.”
Once you are ready to begin a workout, start by waking your muscles up. They are likely stiff, and they need a chance to loosen up and prepare for the work ahead. A few great moves that work well for any kind of workout include cat-and-cow stretches, pigeon stretch, and quad stretch. The cat-and-cow move helps to engage your core, improve breathing, and also loosen your shoulders, hips and back. Simply get on all fours, breath in, engage your abs and arch your back, so your spine rises to the ceiling. Pause, then release and as you exhale let your belly sink towards the floor while you back arches. Pigeon stretch opens your hips and lengthens your thigh muscles. And quad stretch focuses on the front of your thighs, which you will likely rely on quite a bit during your workout.
When you are done with your workout, whether you spent time on cardio or strength work, you need to get into your stretching exercises. Don’t skimp on your stretching time because you think it’s a waste or it’s not going to affect your body. Celebrity trainer Ashley Borden explains “when one muscle group, like your quads, is stiff, that prevents others, like your glutes, from firing correctly.” In other words, if you don’t stretch, your muscles won’t function properly. And if your body doesn’t perform at it’s maximum capacity, then you won’t get the results you want.
To start the cool-down process, just slow down what you were doing. If you were running, slow down your pace to a walk. If you were cycling, reduce your resistance and speed. Once your heart rate slows and you can control your breathing, begin your first stretch. A C-curve stretch is a great way to target your lower back, which you use for support throughout your workout, regardless of what workout you did. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, round your back and pull your belly to your spine so that your back looks like a C. Then engage your abs, breath in, and sit up tall to lengthen your spine. As you exhale, return to the C position.
Next, focus on your legs. If you want your leg muscles to be strong but also lean, you need to lengthen the muscle fibers after a workout. Start with your hamstrings by sitting on the floor and stretching one leg out in front of you, while the other leg is bent. Reach for your toes while keeping that leg straight, so you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Repeat on the other side. Next, stand up and do a cross-legged fold, with one leg crossed over the other. Bend from the waist down and hang over your toes so you feel a slight pull on the outside of the leg that is in front. This stretches your IT band, which is a “thick piece of connective tissue that runs parallel to the femur from the hip to the knee.” Its main job is to stabilize your knee, so if you don’t stretch this band properly, especially after running, you could experience knee pain, or worse, injury.
Don’t forget your quads, which are one of your most-used muscle groups. Stand tall with your standing leg slightly bent, and pull your other leg behind you, grabbing onto your foot and gently pulling your heel as close to your butt as possible. You should feel the stretch in the front of your thigh, especially if that muscle is sore. Lastly, you get to sit back down and do a butterfly stretch, which not only feels amazing, but it also opens your hips and stretches your lower back and inner thighs. Sit down on the floor, bring your feet together and bend your knees. Then open your legs and let your knees fall to the floor as you lengthen your torso and breath.