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Stretching your way to good health: Our definitive guide from a mobility expert

by Caroline Fontein

Today, was a good day. You stuck to your clean-eating plan and made it to the gym for some quality time on the treadmill. Or was it a leg day? Either way, after working up a sweat (and the serious need for a shower), the thought of sticking around to finish off your exercise routine with some stretching might be a stretch in itself.

For many of us, stretching is an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be. Even if you don’t exercise at all or are just starting to, stretching is important for overall health.

How stretching helps

Sore neck? Lower back pain? Tightness in your shoulders? Stretching can help with all of this. There are many benefits of stretching daily. Here are 8 more reasons stretching is good for you:

  • Improves mobility
  • Relieves stress
  • Helps reduce chronic pain
  • Prevents injury
  • Increases your ability to engage in physical activity
  • Helps invigorate your body and fight midday fatigue
  • Improves your posture
  • Helps increase blood flow to your muscles which can reduce muscle soreness

So, now you may be wondering:

Where do I start?

Knowing how, what and when to stretch is the tricky part.

“You might have a tight back and think that bending over and trying to touch your toes is a good way to stretch it out and make it feel better, but really that motion could be making it worse,” said certified occupational therapist Lindsay Sudell.

 

Sudell is also a level 3 medical facial stretch specialist, Graston Technique clinician, crossfit L1 (CF-L1) trainer, an ACE-certified personal trainer and the owner and founder of Simply Stretch LA. Located in Venice, California, near our SmartyPants headquarters, her studio offers a range of therapies including fascial stretch therapy, Graston Technique®, cupping therapy, the KinesioTaping® Method and rock taping.

We spent some time with Sudell (both on and off the therapy table) to learn all about the ins and outs of stretching and the benefits of making it a part of our daily routine (especially for those of us who lead a sedentary lifestyle).

She also gave us three easy and safe stretches that she recommends to almost all her clients. We’ll get to later in the article.

Now:

Let’s begin with the basics...

Why is it important to stretch?

Two words. Desk jobs. Sudell explained, that spending hours sitting in the same position can lead to a lot of sedentary chronic pain issues.

“It’s that tech neck computer screen posture, and then a lot of impairments and injuries result from that,” said Sudell.

“People are working all day at a computer. Then they go to the gym later that night, and they run, squat, jump - do all those things that require them to get in the exact opposite position. So, people are developing a lot of muscular imbalances that lead to injuries and pain and without stretching, you don’t really address the real root cause of why these issues are developing.”

Even if you’re not someone who goes to the gym, stretching can help prevent injury and pain that arises from your daily lifestyle or be used as a method of treatment after it does.

How should we incorporate stretching into our routine? Before working out? After exercise?

“I always recommend some form of dynamic stretching before people work out. Movement based, not sitting in any one position for more than 30 seconds. If you’re getting ready to workout you want your muscles ready to fire,” said Sudell.

Post workout, she suggests doing stretches for about 2 minutes each side. That’s the time it takes for your muscles to actually relax into a pose and develop the long term soft tissue changes you need to experience a change in your mobility.

Why is stretching important after you workout?

When you’re lifting weights or doing any exercises to build muscle, you’re essential creating little micro tears in the muscle fibers. This is also the source of your delayed muscle soreness after working out or DOMS. After you create those micro tears, just like with any other soft tissue, your body heals itself by laying down scar tissue.

“The thing that you don’t think about is, it doesn’t just develop on the surface. It grows deep into your soft tissues like the roots of a tree, and it gets all intertwined and tangled. So that’s where things like knots and adhesions start,” said Sudell.

“It’s also something that if you’re not addressing your mobility as your workout, as you build muscle, as you do strength training, you’re going to get stiffer and stiffer the more muscle you build or the more you workout.”

Sudell used bodybuilders as an example. The average bodybuilder is usually big on muscle but not flexibility because they have so much scar tissue and adhesions that have laid down through the micro tears that are formed during working out. This then prevents their muscles from being able to glide and move.

Yes, even bodybuilders need to stretch.

What is a disk herniation?

So with your back, you have your vertebrae and your spine. Between your vertebrae, you have disks.

Sudell said to think of them as jelly-filled donuts. Whenever you’re sitting all day, and you have bad posture and your core isn’t turned on to stabilize your spine the way it should, you might bend down to pick up something from the floor, and all of a sudden your back hurts.

What happens is, the material that holds that jelly in place rips. Then it starts leaking out (typically from the back) on your spinal cord. Then that presses on your spinal cord and your nerves, the ones that control pain and motor functions. When you think about it that way, whenever you sit or lean forward, more and more jelly is getting pushed backward.

“Most of the time, after you hurt your back, people go home, sit on the couch and ice it,” said Sudell.

“Well, sitting on the couch is the worst thing you can do because basically more of that jelly donut is getting pushed out the back. So, if you have a disk herniation or feel like you tweaked something, the thing you should be doing is immediately laying on your stomach on the ground and propping up on your elbows to get that jelly to go back inside the donut.”

As long as you aren’t experiencing any serious or debilitating pain, Sudell recommends these three daily stretches that you can do almost anywhere.

3 Daily Stretches for Everyday Mobility

1. Couch Stretch

Couch Stretch Mobility

This is a good quad and hip flexor stretch that Sudell recommends to almost all her clients to help eliminate tightness in the hips, chronic pain and prevent injury. Often, symptoms like back pain can stem from other areas of your body being tight, like your hip flexors.

Frequency: Sudell suggests doing this stretch daily for about 2 minutes each side.

Equipment: Couch, chair or a wall. Mat to kneel on.

Instructions:

  1. Kneel down and put your hands on the floor in a table top position. Then, back up so that your feet are against the couch, base of the chair or wall depending upon what you’re using. Use your mat to help cushion your knees.

  2. Start with your right leg and slide it back so that your knee is on the floor and your shin is flush with the couch, chair or wall. Your knee should fit in the corner of the floor and whatever surface you may be using (couch, chair, wall).

  3. Next, move your left leg in front of you so that it’s at about a 90 degree angle from the floor.

  4. With your glutes braced, move your torso upright so that your right thigh and torso form a straight line. You can extend that posture by also holding your right arm straight up above your head for an additional stretch.

    TIP: If you need some extra stability here, you can use a roller, pillow or other surface to support your left hand.

  5. Hold that posture for about 2 minutes. If that’s too uncomfortable, you can try moving your right shin so that it’s not flush with the couch to lessen the stretch. But make sure you’re close enough for the top of your foot to remain on the top of the couch cushion, like how Sudell is demonstrating with the chair. If you’re using a wall, and decide to move your shin away from it to lesson the stretch, you’ll want to make sure that your toes are still close enough to touch it.

  6. After about 2 minutes, change legs and hold for another 2 minutes.

2. Prone Scorpion Stretch

Photo 1

Prone Scorpion Mobility Stretch

Photo 2

Prone Scorpion Mobility Posture

Sudell recommends this as a great stretch for first thing in the morning. This dynamic stretch helps open the shoulders and rotates the spine.

Frequency: Sudell suggests doing this stretch daily for about 2 minutes each side.

Equipment: Mat.

Instructions:

  1. Lie face down on your mat with your legs straight behind you and arms out to each side. Your body should form a T shape, like photo

  2. Next, swing your right leg back across your body so that your foot is almost touching your opposite hand. Make sure you squeeze your glutes when you start this movement and while holding it. They should be the driver of this motion. Don’t worry if you can’t get your foot very close to your hand. This is something you can work up to as your range of motion increases. The goal should be to touch your toe to the ground as close as you can to the opposite hand.

  3. Hold this position for 2 minutes. If this is too intense, try breaking it up in 30 second intervals until you can tolerate holding for the full 2 minutes.

  4. Repeat on your opposite leg.

3. Standing Pigeon Stretch

Standing Pigeon Mobility Stretch

This is like the yoga pose you do on the floor, but by turning the stretch into a standing pose, it helps isolate the glutes more and gets into the hip flexors for a deeper stretch.

Frequency: Sudell suggests doing this stretch daily for about 2 minutes each side.

Equipment: Desk, table, back of couch, bed or whatever surface you have nearby that’s ideally a little below your waistline and that you can lean on and rest your leg.

Instructions:

  1. Stand facing your desk, table, couch or other surface you may be using.

  2. Gently lift your right knee to your chest and grab your right heel or the back of your calf to help guide your knee and shin so that it can rest on the top of the desk, parallel to its edge. Make sure your right foot is flexed. While you’re do this, your left leg should be straight and standing tall facing the desk.

  3. For a deeper stretch, you can move your left leg back so that it’s at a slight angle, as shown in the photo. Whether or not your back leg stays straight or at an angle, try placing your hands on the desk and leaning forward. You should feel a stretch on the side of your glutes.

  4. Hold the pose for 2 minutes and repeat on the other leg.

Still not motivated to hit the mat after you work up a sweat? Maybe it’s time to let someone else work your fascia.

What’s the deal with Myofascial Stretch Therapy?

Fascial Stretch Therapy

If you follow any fitness experts on Instagram or have already started researching the health benefits of stretching (or rolling), it’s likely you’ve come across this term.

So what does it mean?

Have you ever peeled the skin off chicken and seen the white cobweb-like material that runs between the skin and the muscle. That’s fascia.

Myofascial therapy is an assisted stretching technique where you lie on a table and get stretched by a professional that is trained in fascial stretch therapy. The whole premise is that there are all these different facial patterns throughout your body that govern movement.

“For example if you bend down to try and touch your toes. Most people are like, ‘Oh my hamstrings are so tight.’ But really it’s anything along the superficial back line. So it could be your calves, lower pack, lower neck, and it’s one of those things that if we release that whole line, suddenly your hands might be on the floor,” said Sudell.

If you’re someone who suffers from intense chronic pain, especially in your joints or lower back, this type of therapy may be something you want to consider.

By seeing a trained specialist you can get a much deeper and and more impactful stretch than what you can do on your own.

A professional will also be able to help diagnose the root of your problem as sometimes things like knee or joint pain can actually stem from tightness in other areas of your body.

Just like good nutrition and regular exercise, stretching is another important part of feeling good, even if you sometimes have to reach for it.

Do you have a stretch you’d like to share or question about another stretching technique? Let us know in the comments below.

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Caroline Fontein

Caroline Fontein is the Editor and Content Manager for SmartyPants Vitamins. When she's not writing about the latest and greatest in gummy nutrition, she loves rollerblading (it's a thing), long walks on the beach (with her dog) and wine tasting (sometimes the whole bottle).