When I was in Corporate America, we would always talk about Stretch Goals – those goals that are achievable, but hard to reach. That can also apply for the goal of starting an exercise regimen. But there is another meaning to the word stretch, which is just as important for anyone who works out—it is the physical stretching of the muscles.

We are so busy, and fitting in an exercise routine can be tough. You may think, “Why waste a few extra minutes of a hard core exercise with a slow stretch or bend?” In fact, stretching may seem to take a back seat to our exercise routine, but it shouldn’t. Stretching not only improves the muscle’s elasticity and improves muscle tone, but it also helps prevent injuries, increase muscle control and range of motion, which in turn may actually improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury.

Every workout I do with clients incorporates a thorough stretching component. I either physically manipulate a client’s body or watch them carefully to ensure they perform the most effective and safe stretch. Stretching incorrectly can actually do more harm than good. Be sure you are using proper technique.

Follow these basic tips to be sure you are stretching safely:
• Don’t consider stretching a warm-up. Before stretching, warm up with some low intensity movement, like a dynamic stretching, for 5 to 10 minutes. Definitely stretch after you exercise!
• Focus on major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on calves, quads/hamstrings, core muscles, chest, upper back, biceps/triceps and shoulders—make sure that you stretch both sides. If you stretch your left bicep, be sure to stretch your right bicep, too.
• Don’t bounce. Bouncing during a stretch can cause small tears in your muscle tissue. These tears leave scar tissue as the muscle heals, which in turn tightens the muscle even further, making you less flexible and more likely to feel pain and more prone to injury. Hold each stretch for at least 20 seconds.
• Don’t aim for pain. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching, but not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far.
• Make stretches sport specific. It’s important to customize stretches for your sport or activity. Runners, for instance, are more vulnerable to hamstring strains. If you are training for a 1/2 marathon, be sure you are doing stretches that help your hamstrings.
• Keep up with your stretching. Ideally, you should stretch at least two to three times a week. If you don’t stretch regularly, you risk losing any benefits that stretching offered. It’s like exercise, if you stop doing it, you start to lose the benefits.

Last but not least, remember that stretching can be done almost anywhere at almost any time. While you are sitting at your desk, try some calf stretching. No one will notice. Put your pens and pencils at the corner of your desk so that you have to reach to get them (a nice arm and shoulder stretch). While waiting in line at the grocery store, try some ankle circles (you can even use the cart for balance if needed).

Some participants in my TRX classes have asked for a stretching only class. Feel free to let me know and I’ll put it together! Let’s work to meet your stretch goals!