Though often neglected, stretching is of infinite importance to the exerciser. The older one gets, the more important it becomes. Stretching has been shown to improve everything from flexibility to blood pressure to recovery time. So, why do so many neglect this most brief and simple portion of their workout?

In short, TIME! Most participants are guilty of saying, “I’ll have to leave before we stretch because….” or simply slipping out the back of class. Let us encourage you to never neglect your stretch.No matter who you are, you can benefit from stretching. If you lift weights, you should spot stretch between lifts to elongate muscles, prevent soreness and injury, and improve circulation. For stretches between exercises, holding a mere 15-20 seconds is sufficient, this is called stretching for recovery. After cardio or at the end of a lifting session, a more complete stretching routine is in order to improve flexibility. The most effective stretches begin with the largest muscles: quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and low back after leg day or cardio; upper back, chest, shoulders, biceps and triceps on upper body days or after swimming or racquet sports. Of course, so long as your muscles are warm when you stretch, it is better to stretch too many muscles than too few. Hold end of workout stretches for 30-60 seconds each.

Don’t wear a watch? No problem…sing “Happy Birthday” or your ABC’s through twice…that’s about the right amount of time to hold a stretch. A stretch is the mindful lengthening off a muscle. Being aware and making sure not to hold your breath while stretching is important since the blood and oxygen need to work together to ensure recovery in the muscle. Between exercises and after exercise are both appropriate times to stretch.

Never stretch BEFORE warming up. Wait at least 3-5 minutes after you begin warming up and/or working out before you stretch. Stretching a cold muscle can actually increase your risk of injury. Also, avoid “locking” joints. Make sure there is a slight bend in the knee or elbow for the duration of the stretch. Otherwise, you risk taking the focus of the muscle and placing it in the joint. Stretching is supposed to protect your joints by allowing for full range of motion by loosening stiff muscles.Please, find a place out of the way when you stretch. Avoid walkways between pieces of equipment, high traffic areas, the railing of the track, and remaining on the piece of equipment.

In these locations you will feel rushed, conspicuous, and maybe even choose to end stretching early just to avoid the stares of others. Move to the side of the track, the grass, an empty room, or a designated stretching area.Stretching provides the opportunity to return the muscle to its original pre-workout length. Lifting and training cause our muscles to respond by contracting and sometimes becoming engorged with blood. Stretching has been shown to alleviate the stress this causes within the muscle and the joint. It further reduces the likelihood of injury and soreness by releasing the pooled blood, lengthening tired fibers, and allowing re-oxygenation of the muscle.

When stretching between exercises, stretch the muscle you just worked. After bench press, stretch your chest. After squats stretch quads, glutes, and hamstrings, etc. For post-workout stretching, work from large to small muscles and hold for 30-60 seconds. Glutes, low back, hamstrings, quadriceps first; then upper back, hip flexors, calves, chest, shoulders, triceps, and biceps, for example. Stretch your neck as well but VERY GENTLY. Never put pressure on the neck and never “roll” your head to the back. Put an ear on the same-side shoulder, roll forward placing chin to chest, and then repeat the ear to shoulder on the other side.For your own health and safety, add a brief stretch to each workout. You will find you feel more relaxed both mentally and physically. You will also find that you are injured less often and seem to recover from bouts of exercise more quickly.

If you start seeing results from stretching, you might want to check out Yoga or Pilates once a week for a more complete, invigorating option! If you are new to stretching or worry about your technique, find a group fitness instructor or personal trainer in your facility to walk you through a routine. Now you know!