Don't Skip the Stretch!

When gym-goers make a quick escape just after finishing a workout, they miss out on engaging in a vitally important behavior. Often overlooked as an element of workout routines, stretching assists the body’s recovery post-exercise and improves future muscle performance.

While its most avid practitioners tend to include more yogis and dancers than serious weight lifters, stretching contributes more to the body than an increase in flexibility.

The additional benefits of a post-lift stretch include increased blood circulation and improved quality of connective tissue, according to personal trainer Lee Boyce.

“It doesn’t matter how safe we are when we’re performing our exercises,” writes Boyce, referencing the role of post-workout stretching on forthcoming muscle use. “Injury potential is still there if our muscles aren’t in the best condition.”

Boyce’s feelings mirror those of personal trainer Aimée O’Sullivan, who previously resided in Australia and now works in New York City.

“Most people I meet think stretching is for flexible people,” she explains. “Think of stretching as a balance against all of the movements you have performed throughout the day.”

O’Sullivan encourages stretching both before and after a workout in order to prevent injury and to allow for a less painful workout overall.

“I am passionate about yoga as well as body building, so I try to incorporate those aspects into my work,” she says. “You want to stretch any muscles that might inhibit your workout beforehand, and stretch whichever muscles you have just used post-workout to prevent them from tightening up.”

If personal trainers and bodybuilders alike make use of this practice in their fitness routines, why do many gym-goers neglect to do the same?

Lacy Seim, a certified personal trainer, title-certified boxing trainer, and UFC certified trainer, believes that most people skip out because they don’t know any better.

“Almost no one stretches unless told to do so during a class,” says Seim, who understands that those who don’t stretch “have no idea what they are doing” to their bodies.

The problem lies, not surprisingly, in both convenience and timing.

When an effective strength-training session requires an hour of dedicated work, the addition of both cardio and multiple stretches (each lasting thirty or more seconds) may bring one gym visit over the two-hour mark.

The average working professional can’t spare two hours on a busy weekday, and may favor cardio in attempts to maximize calorie burn in limited time.

“Stretching is like foreplay,” says Seim, explaining why many people don’t see this process as a necessity, compared to their overall experience with cardio and weight lifting.

In addition, stretching may cause light discomfort when performed on tight muscles, making this habit both painful and difficult to implement.

O’Sullivan recommends remedying these issues with old-fashioned perseverance.

“Do not feel disheartened by your natural ability,” she says. “Some people will find this easier than others, but with enough practice, anyone can become more flexible.”

In the case that stretching presents too tough a challenge, however, O’Sullivan suggests purchasing specific tools that maximize movement and relieve the burden of inconvenience and impatience. Two of these tools, especially convenient for those on a tight budget, include stretching straps and foam rollers.

Used most often by ballet dancers and advanced yogis as a means of increasing flexibility, stretching straps (also called yoga straps) assist in drastically simplifying more difficult moves, allowing users the ability to pull on their muscles from new angles and with more force than they would exert manually.

“You can often get a much better stretch by adding some resistance,” says O’Sullivan. “There are a lot of ways to do it. You can use your own body weight, someone else can help you, or you can use a stretching strap.”

Meanwhile, foam rollers relieve knots through a very simple form of manual trigger point therapy, and can help with targeting commonly neglected muscles.

“I encourage the use of foam rollers,” Seim adds. “If a tool allows you to push your own personal limits, it’s great.”

While both trainers stress the importance of manual work without tools, they acknowledge that these gadgets may encourage more gym-goers to warm up and soothe their aching muscles.

And though some people don’t feel deprived during or after a stretch-less routine, skipping out on this habit can cause long-term harm.

“If you start a car that’s been sitting for months, immediately slamming on the gas and revving it to its max, your car is going to break or eventually begin performing badly,” Seim warns. “The same is true with your body.”