Humans can do amazing things, but sometimes, we have to admit it: Our lives are not perfectly designed for our bodies. For starters, we sit too much and we stare at too many screens. All this bad positioning can take a toll on our bodies and their alignment. Muscles that are supposed to be lengthened and shortened throughout the day stay short, making them tight and potentially limiting movement.
A full-body stretching routine can help you unfold and improve body alignment. But what exactly is stretching?
It helps to understand how your body works. All muscles shorten and lengthen when they are being used. Stretching a muscle temporarily relaxes it and allows it to lengthen. If you were to look at a muscle under a microscope, you’d see striated fibers called sarcomeres—the basic building blocks of muscles. Each sarcomere is composed of two types of filaments or proteins, actin (which is thin) and myosin (which is thick). During a muscle contraction, these filaments slide against each other, while little cross bridges between the filaments enable the muscle to contract and lengthen. Of course, all this takes energy and happens without you even realizing it—but that’s the general process. It’s a microscopic dance between proteins every time you move.
Common logic dictates that a good stretching routine paired with an appropriate warm up and cool down before and after activity and can be an effective way to prevent injuries. According to one 2015 study, a static stretching routine can reduce the incidence of injury. However, the evidence is not totally conclusive, and another scientific study found that static stretching may not be effective in preventing allinjuries, but it might be minimally effective at reducing musculotendinous injuries such as tendinopathies (more commonly known as tendinitis).
While the jury is still out there about the actual effectiveness of stretching, one thing is for sure: it feels good! Stretching first thing in the morning or after a long day in a slouched position can at least temporarily reduce aches and pains related to bad posture and might be exactly what your body needs to relax.
For a full body routine from head to toe, try these stretches.
Before you do anything, relax your shoulders. Did you feel them just drop a little? Chances are, you’re hunching your shoulders up throughout the day, storing stress and tension in your upper trapezius muscles, which you didn’t even know you were using. To stretch the upper traps and leave your neck feeling a little looser, begin by placing one hand over the opposite side of your head.
Slowly and carefully draw your right ear to your right shoulder using our right hand to put gentle overpressure on the left side. Keep your face forward. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
Pec Stretch on Foam Roller
Do this stretch first thing in the morning to set yourself up for a more open chest the rest of the day, or end the day by lying out on the foam roller and letting all the tension from computer use and meetings slip away. Better yet, do both.
By lying down on a foam roller with arms outstretched, palms face up, you can effectively stretch the pectoralis major and minor. Don’t force your hands to the ground—let gravity to the work. And don’t forget to take some deep breaths—your pecs are respiratory muscles which shorten and contract with each breath. Hold a static pec stretch with arms out like the letter “T” then like the letter “W” for at least 30 seconds each.
Upper Back Stretch on Foam Roller
Since you’re already on the foam roller, turn it perpendicular to your spine. Lie back so your hips are on the ground and your upper back is supported by the foam roller. Clasp your hands to hammock your head and slowly allow your upper back to stretch backwards over and around the foam roller.
For a more intense stretch, lift you hips and roll back and forth over it. Notice how your spine is curved forward most of the day? This allows you to open up and extend the thoracic spine backwards, providing it with very important extension to keep it nice and mobile.
Turn over so that you’re kneeling. Lean forward with your arms outstretched in front of you on the floor and your hips sitting over your feet. If you have any pain in your hips or knees, use a prop to elevate your hips such as a pillow or yoga block.
Reach those arms forward and hold this stretch, allowing your lower back to lengthen. Gently bring both hands to reach towards one side for an increased lat stretch. Repeat towards other side. Hold each of these as long as it feels good—about 30 to 60 seconds.
Kneeling Lunge Stretch with Reach
After lots of sitting, the hip flexors such as the iliopsoas and quadriceps muscles can get very tight. Get into a kneeling lunge pose (the position you’d get into if you were going to propose to someone). Tuck your pelvis so that you don’t arch your lower back by bringing your pubic bone under your and forward. You might immediately feel a stretch in the front of the hip for the leg behind you. Lean into it without losing the posterior pelvic tilt (do not arch low back to go farther).
If you want to intensify this stretch, add a reach by bringing both arms straight up towards the ceiling then reaching the across your body away from the side you are stretching. Breathe into the tightest spots and exhale. Hold this pose 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.
Lie on your back both both legs straight. Use a yoga strap or towel around one foot to support it as you slowly lift the leg straight up towards the ceiling. Keep your spine neutral on the floor. Once you are at the point where you feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg, hold it there for about 30 to 60 seconds. Don’t forget to breathe! Repeat on other side.
The calves—namely, your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles—are working full time most days. Nothing feels better after a long day of standing or walking than a calf stretch. To perform, you can either hand your heel off of a step, lengthening the back of your calf muscle, or you can perform a lunge placing hands on the wall and keeping the back leg completes straight to feel a stretch.
In order to get both muscles, make sure you do both of these stretches one time with the knee bent and one time with the knee straight. Hold each one at least 30 seconds.
By Dr. Rachel Tavel, PT, DPT, CSCS