Stretch for Greater Flexibility
Still not getting the results you want from your exercise routine? Blame tight muscles, says Ashley Borden, a celebrity trainer based in Los Angeles. "When one muscle group, like your quads, is stiff, that prevents others, like your glutes, from firing correctly," she explains. End result: compromised performance (and calorie-burning ability), not to mention an increased risk of injury.
Old-school static stretches, where you bend and hold for what seems like an eternity, aren't necessarily the most effective approach to increase your flexibility. Borden swears instead by her "Stretch and Fire" method, which she uses to teach clients like Mandy Moore. Based on a principle called Active-Isolated Technique, it involves contracting one muscle group while stretching the other. This triggers a muscular reflex that will increase your range of motion and deepen the stretch. Best of all, her workout — which targets most women's tightest muscles — takes just minutes a day.
Try these six stretches after your regular cardio or strength workout (aim to do them five times a week). You'll see improvement to your flexibility in as little as two weeks and gains in both your strength and endurance in less than one month.
1. Active Pigeon
Target: The Piriformis (a deep gluteal muscle)
- Begin in a full push-up position, palms aligned under shoulders.
- Place left knee on the floor near shoulder with left heel by right hip.
- Lower down to forearms and bring right leg down with the top of the foot on the floor (not shown).
- Keep chest lifted to the wall in front of you, gazing down.
- If you're more flexible, bring chest down to floor and extend arms in front of you.
- Pull navel in toward spine and tighten your pelvic-floor muscles; contract right side of glutes.
- Curl right toes under while pressing ball of foot into the floor, pushing through your heel.
- Bend knee to floor and release; do 5 reps total, then switch sides and repeat.
Target: Lower Back
- Sit on floor with knees bent, feet on floor about 12 inches in front of butt.
- Interlace fingers behind hamstrings, pointing elbows out to sides.
- Round back, tightening pelvic floor and pulling navel in toward spine; focus on your belly button with jaw pulled in. Inhale through your nose.
- As you exhale, draw navel in even tighter and lift left leg, pushing left heel toward wall in front of you while pulling back with pinkie toe; at the same time, push down on right foot (not shown).
- Return to start and repeat.
- Do 5 reps; switch sides and repeat.
3. Modified Cobra
- Lie facedown on the floor with thumbs directly under shoulders, legs extended with the tops of your feet on the floor.
- Tighten your pelvic floor, and tuck hips downward as you squeeze your glutes.
- Press shoulders down and away from ears.
- Push through your thumbs and index fingers as you raise your chest toward the wall in front of you.
- Relax and repeat.
- Do 5 reps total.
4. Hamstring Stretch Series
- Place a small folded towel behind your head and lie faceup on the floor with legs extended and feet flexed.
- Bend right knee to chest and interlace fingers behind hamstrings as close to your groin as possible; gaze at your chest and keep your chin down, neck long (not shown).
- Tighten the muscles of your pelvic floor and extend leg, pushing through the heel and contracting quads.
- Return to start and repeat; do 5 reps.
- Repeat, turning thigh outward (heel points in), for 5 reps.
- Relax and repeat, turning thigh inward (heel points out, toes point in), for 5 reps.
- Switch legs; repeat series for a total of 15 reps on each leg.
5. Split Squat
Target: Quads, Calves
- Stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Step right foot about 12 inches in front.
- Curl toes of your left leg under; keep weight equal between both feet. Interlace fingers, placing hands under ribs; press shoulders down away from ears.
- Tighten the muscles of your pelvic floor; tuck your pelvis under and squeeze glutes.
- Slowly bend both knees, coming down in 3 counts; feel the stretch along the left quad.
- Press into floor to rise back to start in 3 counts.
- Do 5 reps; switch legs and repeat.
- Kneel on all fours with wrists aligned under shoulders and knees under hips, toes curled into floor (not shown).
- Bring your forehead toward the floor and slide the pinkie edge of your left hand along the floor in front of you (keep your right palm flat on the floor).
- Press shoulders down away from your ears and squeeze your glutes.
- Return to starting position by pushing down on your right palm and sliding your left hand back toward your shoulders.
- Do 5 reps; switch sides and repeat.
The Best Time to Stretch
Question: "What's the best time to stretch — before or after a workout?"
Answer: "Some studies have shown that stretching right before exercise can actually hamper performance," says Mike Bracko, EdD, director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary, Alberta, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
One Theory: When you stretch, protein filaments in the muscles expand, then stay elongated for a short time, making the muscle weaker for about 10 to 15 minutes. Better? Warm up to increase blood flow, then stretch post-workout, when your muscles are more flexible.
The Forgotten Area You Must Work
You've probably heard that Kegel exercises will strengthen your pelvic floor after pregnancy and ramp up your sex life anytime. But these moves (developed by Arnold Kegel, MD, in the late 1940s) are also crucial to building a firm foundation for any movement, says trainer Ashley Borden.
"It's vital to strengthen both the muscles of your pelvic floor and your deep abdominals," she notes. "These muscles work together to create a solid base on which everything else can build."
Build Up Your Pelvic Floor and Deep Abdominals
- To engage the area, think about stopping the flow of urine midstream.
- Keep the muscles contracted while pulling your navel in toward your spine.
- Hold this position during each stretch.