Stretch, Yes, but G-R-A-D-U-A-L-L-Y

<i> Judi Sheppard Missett is founder and chief executive officer of Jazzercise, an international aerobic-dance instruction company. </i>

Stretching seems like simplicity itself: You just extend an arm or a leg and feel tension and soreness melt away. Exercisers, who know stretching is an integral part of any workout, know that it also improves flexibility and coordination, helps prevent injury, loosens muscles before strenuous activity and helps cool the body down afterward.

Still, it’s a bit more complicated, for there are decidedly right and wrong ways to stretch. Many people, for instance, use stretching as a warm-up for exercise, but since one should never stretch a cold muscle, that’s inappropriate. Rather, one should limber up for a few minutes--jog gently in place, for instance--to raise the body temperature, then stretch and move on to more strenuous exercise.

And while many people stretch before exercise, fewer know the importance of stretching afterward. Stretching should be a vital part of the cool-down that ends a workout. It can help clear away byproducts that muscles create during exercise and prevent blood from pooling in exercised muscles. That will decrease, or even eliminate, muscle soreness.

There are basically two kinds of stretches--ballistic and static--and the latter is preferable to the former. Ballistic stretching requires that you bounce and pulse as you stretch. That can be counterproductive because if you stretch a muscle too fast or too hard, it protects itself by contracting. This is precisely the opposite of the effect you want. Jerky motion can also cause exactly the sort of muscle tears that stretching is supposed to prevent.


Static stretching, on the other hand, is slow, sustained stretching. You extend a muscle until it feels tight--but not until it hurts--and hold it for 15 to 60 seconds. You’ll have less risk of tissue trauma, use less energy and relieve, rather than cause, muscle soreness. Here’s a good example of a static stretch:

Sit with your torso lifted tall and your legs extended on the floor in front of you. Cross your left leg over the right one and bend your left knee so that the bottom of your left foot is on the floor. Pull your left thigh toward your torso by wrapping your right arm around it. Angle your torso toward your left leg and hold the position for about 30 seconds. Reverse your legs to stretch the right side in the same way.