People generally have two goals associated with a fitness routine: to lose weight and to lose inches. It makes sense that these are the points to which people gravitate; both lead to a difference in appearance and measurable benchmarks. Dropping pounds and clothing sizes leads to a feeling of accomplishment and confidence and there is nothing wrong with approaching fitness goals in this way.
Less-obvious workout benefits should also be considered, however. In order to succeed in any physical pursuit, overall wellness needs to be part of the equation. Improved flexibility is just one goal every athlete, amateur or professional, should aspire to achieve. Here are some things to keep in mind when working on improved flexibility:
The importance of stretching before and after workouts cannot be emphasized enough. Before your workouts it’s important to warm up “dynamically.” That means to move around (jog, bike, row, etc) to get your blood flowing and to get your body warm. Once you are warm you should hit movements that loosen your muscles up (lunge rotations, punter kicks for your hamstrings, etc). Once your body is warm and loose I like to go into bodyweight squats, PVC pipe presses and pass throughs, and then move into specific warm ups for the exercises that are going to show up in the workout. I may or may not add rolling out on a foam roller or lacrosse ball to my pre workout regimen as well.
Once a workout is over that is the time to stretch like most people normally do, “static stretching.” Because your body is very warm from the workout (or so I hope it is!) your muscles will stretch more freely without creating tiny tears in the muscles. It is very helpful to take your time and stretch in a way where you can make progress as your muscles relax over the duration of the stretch. I have found success by hitting a stretch for about 30 seconds, relaxing for a few seconds and then returning to the stretch, just deeper, for another 30 seconds. Hit a few rounds of that and you will really be able to loosen your worked muscles out. If possible, include stretching throughout the day too, especially in the 12 hours following a workout.
Come up with ways to stretch without really thinking about it. Sit on the floor while watching television and lean into your extended or straddled legs. Find a wall at the park or piece of playground equipment and lean into it while you watch your children play.
Tensed muscles simply will not stretch as well as relaxed ones. Breathing has a lot to do with the level of relaxation present in stretching exercises. Keep breathing patterns consistent and really focus on getting in a rhythm. It may also be helpful to stand up and shake out muscles between stretching sets to release the contracted portions. It may be beneficial to try partner stretching too, because the presence of a friend will naturally lead to more comfort. If you try to rush through stretching exercises, you will miss out on the true potential of flexibility training.
Whether you stretch following an intense CrossFit session, or a slow-paced endurance run, give the movements your full focus. Tune in to what different muscle groups in your body are trying to tell you. If you perform the same stretches following the same activities, take heed of your improvement over time. Are you stretching with more ease? Are you able to stretch more deeply? Gauge your improvement over time and note the way muscle soreness and injury is reduced.
As with any fitness regimen, consistency in flexibility training is the key to improvement over time. Make a point to incorporate stretching after every core training or endurance session to realize all of the benefits for fitness.