A cold, tight muscle is a muscle that’s more likely to be injured when it’s called into action. And yet, how many times have you jumped right into your working sets, with nary a warm-up rep or stretch? Or left the gym walking around stiff, muscles still contracted?
The muscles and casing-like lining around them (the fascia) benefit greatly from warm-up movements and stretching, not just to make the muscles more pliable and less injury-prone, but also to help promote growth and agility. We’ve got a list of great stretches throughout the week that not only help loosen up that creaky rig of yours, but also feel pretty darn great (in that unique “gym” way of feeling great).
1. The Brettzel Stretch: This one is a favorite of mine, personally, because it really helps improve spinal mobility, meaning all the twisting and bending you do during a workout is less likely to result in you hunched over grabbing your lower back. It also targets the hip flexors and quads, making it a great all-around stretch. Lie on your side, with your bottom leg bent and bottom hip extended, and with your top hand, reach back and grab your bottom ankle. Simultaneously, bend your top leg and, with your bottom hand, grab your top knee. You should now be in a position to try to pin “four corners” — both shoulders, bottom ankle, top knee — to the ground, and hold it for 10 seconds. Chances are good that your first try at pinning four corners won’t be successful, and you might be able to pin only three or even two corners. Just keep stretching it out. You might even get a bonus back crack or two.
2. Calves and Hamstring Foam Roller: Self-explanatory, really. Grab a foam roller, and roll your hamstrings and calves over it to work out the knots and tightness that can accumulate in these large muscle groups. Many people find that easing up the muscles in the posterior chain of the legs also has a direct effect on back pain and/or tightness. It’s recommended to do these before any legs days, especially if you’re targeting hamstrings.
3. Downward-Facing Dog: Surprise! We snuck some yoga in on you. You’ll forgive us — it is a great means to stretch the spine, chest, arms, hips, hamstrings and calves while strengthening the ankles and quads. Yoga Journal describes the movement in detail:
The two main movements of Downward Dog are common ones: lifting your arms overhead and stretching your legs out at a right angle to your torso. But when you combine these movements and try to hold them upside down against gravity, they get harder. The pose becomes a laboratory where you observe your body’s patterns. Where are you weak? strong? tight? flexible? Practiced consciously, Downward Dog can train you to balance strength and flexibility in your whole body. To start, focus on your upper body. If your shoulders are tight, your work is to open your chest, stretch through your armpits, and straighten your arms. If you are already flexible here, resist the temptation to press your chest down toward the floor to experience more stretch. This tends to compress your spine and the backs of your shoulders. Instead, engage your arms and upper abdominals, aligning your upper back to lengthen your spine and create an even, diagonal line from your wrists up to your sitting bones.
Next, check in with your lower body. If your hamstrings are tight, they may pull your hips down and force your back to round. In this case, practice with your knees actively bent at first. If you already have open hamstrings, it may be easy for you to lift your hips toward the ceiling. Don’t exaggerate this movement and overarch your lower back. Instead, firm your legs and your lower abdominals to lengthen your spine.
4. Lat Stretch: A fully contracted latissimus dorsi muscle is impressive — just check out someone at the top of a pull-up sometime. But when the lats are at their most impressive is when they have the long, flared look, and you can help their cause by stretching your back well after your back workouts. The great news about this stretch is you don’t need much in the way of special equipment: Just bend down, at the knees or at the waist, grab something sturdy (a door jamb works if you’re at home; any kind of squat rack will work at the gym) and pull backward while keeping your arms extended. For an exaggerated stretch, you can grab one hand at a time, and rotate your torso to “turn in” toward the side of the arm that’s doing the holding.
5. Back Foam Roll. It’s hard to beat a back rub. Lying on a foam roller and using it to free up the knots in the lats, rhomboids and traps is heavenly — and also really effective. Plus, the action required from the legs can warm up and activate the hamstrings and calves, to a lesser extent. Cross your arms over your chest while you do this motion for the best effect.
6. Pec Stretch: For your chest days, I don’t really recommend doing the stretching first; instead do it after you’ve hit your pecs. Lengthening the muscle fibers via stretching can cause a bit more weakness during the lift itself; instead, warm up with a light weight on the same lift you’ll be doing. So, if you’re benching, do a set of push-ups or press a light bar a few times. After your lift, though, have a set of dumbbells nearby and act as if you’re going to perform a fly. Lower the weight slowly, stretching the chest as you lower the dumbbells to the floor. And just drop them — no need to actually finish the fly.