WHAT IT MEANS: It's possible to maintain—and perhaps even improve—flexibility by doing stretching exercise just a couple of days a week. "The old adage, 'Use it or lose it,' is true not only for strength, but also for flexibility," says study author Daniel Cipriani, PT, PhD, associate professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University. "But we found that stretching a couple of days a week, as opposed to every day, also delays flexibility loss, at least with the hamstrings."
Cipriani's Rx: "If you want to gain flexibility (range of motion), it's generally considered necessary to stretch every day for at least four to six weeks," he says. "After about six weeks, however, the gains in range of motion aren't as apparent, and you can switch to three days a week for maintenance of that range of motion, as we found in our study." And you may not even need to start out with a daily regimen. Another study by Cipriani's team recently found that that three to four days of stretching per week can be just as effective as daily stretching even from day one. "That's significant, because a three-day-a-week regimen is much easier to stick to than a seven-day-a-week regimen," he says.
And by the way, the current thinking is that you shouldn't stretch before exercising. "Research has shown that stretching can reduce a muscle's ability to generate force immediately after a stretch, which might affect its ability to perform," says Cipriani. Rather, he recommends warming up by taking your muscles and joints through their full range of motion without actually stretching. "Then, after you exercise or compete, while your body is still warm, complete a full stretching regimen,” he says.
Here are four simple stretches you don't have to do every day—but should do three days a week to maintain and/or improve your body's ability to move:
On the days that you do the stretching workout, stretch twice a day, doing each stretch in your regimen two times per session, similar to the study participants.
#1: Hamstring stretch: Like the study participants, stand facing a stool or step. Then stretch your right leg forward, place your heel on the step or stool, and simultaneously bend forward at the waist (without flexing the spine) until you feel a stretch in the backs of your thighs. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds then relax. Repeat.
#2: Chest stretch. This stretches your pectoral muscles at the front of your chest. Start by standing in a doorway with your arms raised upward so that they are in line with your shoulders, and your elbows are bent at 90-degree angles, forearms pointing upwards. Place your elbows on either side of the doorway. Then slowly lean forward, pressing your elbows against the doorframe, keeping your back straight and your arms and elbows. Keep leaning until you feel a gentle stretch in your chest. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds then relax. Repeat.
#3: Calf stretch. To stretch your outer calf, sit with both legs straight out in front of you, toes pointed towards the ceiling. Loop an exercise band or towel around the ball of one foot, and grasp each end. Gently pull on the rope, flexing your foot and pulling your toes towards you. Hold, then relax. Repeat. To stretch your inner calf, sit with one leg straight and the other bent, with the foot flat on the floor. Grasp the bottom of the foot on the bent leg. Keeping your heel on the ground, pull your toes towards your shin as far as you comfortably can. Hold, then relax. Repeat.
#4: Hip flexor stretch. This one's especially good for those for us who spend most of the day sitting, which tightens the muscles in the front of the hips. Stand with your feet together, about shoulder-width apart. Take a big step forward with your right foot. Keeping your chest high and back straight, squat down until you feel a stretch in your left hip. Your right thigh should be parallel to the floor; your right knee should not extend beyond your right toes. Hold, then relax. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Published on: December 7, 2009