With the increase in yoga classes around the world and the svelte bodies that yoga seems to produce, it's easy to see that stretching is one of the most beneficial parts of your workout. Stretching increases blood circulation, range of motion of joints and relieves stress, while possibly also preventing injury and muscle soreness after your workout.
Though the scientific research jury is out on whether or not stretching reduces the frequency of injury or curbs muscle soreness, most avid exercisers will tell you that it DOES do those things. Even if it's a mental game, if it's working, do it! Many exercisers will stretch before or after the workout, or even both, though most experts recommend after workout stretches. However, adding a combination of body warming and static stretches (lengthening the muscle to a full extension and holding, bounce-free, for 15-30 seconds) can increase your range of motion for certain exercises, like martial arts, kick-boxing, or dance, or boot-camp style workouts.
Stretching has a number of amazing benefits, like better posture, but the most important pluses for your workout-fatigued muscles are:
Increased Blood Circulation
Stretching helps move blood to all joints and muscles, bringing along with it nutrients and oxygen, and taking away toxins. Blood flow to the muscles after working them hard is exactly what you need to get the most strengthening and loosening of shortened muscle fibers. Doctors even recommend simple stretches to people who suffer from poor circulation to improve the movement of blood through the body!
Increased Range of Motion
Stretching increases the range of motion of your joints, allowing you to do more, for longer. You often see older folks who complain of aches and pains, or difficulty standing on their own. Stretching would definitely help them gain more ability to move in those locked up areas. After a workout, though, your muscle fibers are shortened and need lengthening to increase flexibility, allowing you to keep up your treadmill sessions for as long as you want to look good! Most fitness experts and doctors agree that you should stretch after every workout...that's right...after! Stretching when muscles are warm gives the most lengthening benefit to the muscles, and practically eliminates the risk of joint injury. Stretching before a workout can cause stress on muscles, ligaments and joints.
Now that you've pounded away on the treadmill and lifted a ton of weight during your workout, your body is tired! Great job busting through the workout, but say thank you to your powerful self by stretching it out, allowing time to relax your tired muscles and to clear your head. Focus on your accomplishments during your workout, and you'll be feeling like you just had a massage after a few minutes!
Yoga Practitioners do a fantastic job of clearing their mind and increasing the mind body connection through their stretches, but you don't need an hour long class to gain many of the same benefits. Relax into your stretches with low-key music, and hold the static stretch for 15 seconds or more. Breathe deeply, just try not to fall asleep on the mat!