It’s well known that stretching is beneficial, just like it’s well known that it’s good to drink water, eat vegetables, get enough sleep, and maintain a healthy weight. Unfortunately knowledge is different than action and most people still aren’t stretching their muscles.
Stretching can be subtle. It may not feel like much, or maybe it feels uncomfortable even, but the positive effects are tenfold.
Yesterday I wrote about the risks of tight hamstrings and quadriceps and the importance of, literally, working your ass. Today it’s all about stretching the lower body to balance out your muscles, improve your posture, and reduce pain and risk of injury.
Posture, Pain, and Injury
The Role of the Quadriceps and Illiopsoas
Most of us have tight hip flexors (front of thighs), usually as a result of lots of sitting but many exercises tighten these muscles as well.
When this group of muscles get tight they pull the front of the pelvis forward, exaggerating the curve of the low back and making it hard to efficiently use our core muscles. Once the pelvis is out of alignment there’s a chink in the kinetic chain, resulting in compression of the spine and extra pressure in the knees.
The Role of the Hips and Glutes
Just like the front of the thighs, our hips and glutes tend to be tight, tight, tight, especially if we are working them. The problem with tight hips and glutes is that they are literally a pain in the back. Often when you feel discomfort in the low back it’s due to tight hips and glutes.
The Role of the Hamstrings
Sitting and exercising without stretching causes some seriously tight hamstrings (back of the thighs). Tight hamstrings pull the back of the pelvis down, flattening out the low back and creating a tug-of-war for pelvic alignment with the front of the thighs. Tight/weak hamstrings are susceptible to injury and a torn hamstring takes a long time to heal and affects all activity. I tore mine a decade ago and my legs are still imbalanced in strength and flexibility.
How to Stretch
In order to stretch a muscle you must gently move it in opposition to it’s ‘action’. For example, the ‘action’ of the hip flexors is to draw the thigh towards the stomach so to stretch it you must move it in the opposite direction-behind the body.
The action of the hamstrings is to extend the hip (straighten the leg or move the thigh behind you) and bend the knee (think classic aerobic hamstring curl). To stretch it you must draw the thigh towards the front of the body while straightening the knee.
Image Source: concept2.com
Image Source: WeBeFit.com
The action of the butt is to work with the hamstrings to extend thigh/straighten the leg (think standing up from a deadlift).
The four muscles that make up the quadriceps straighten the knee (think coming up from a squat) and one of them works with other “hip flexor” muscles to flex the hip (think the down motion of a squat). To stretch we must extend the hip and bend the knee.
Image Source: run.mbmarathon.com
Lunges are a common and great way to stretch the front of the thighs but to be most effective you must bend the knee as well. This stretch can be intense of the knee and is not appropriate for everyone.
Image Source: .readersdigest.com.au
Final note; there are several schools of thought about when is the best time to stretch. I believe that it’s important to warm up the muscles before you stretch, both to reduce the risk of injury and get the most benefit (warm muscles stretch deeper). Take a few minutes after a workout to stretch or at least move around for a few minutes first (power cleaning, walking, jumping jacks, or any movement that warms up your muscles and joints will aid in pliability).
P.S I didn’t even have time to go into all the positive effects that stretching can have on athletic performance! Another day…:)