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Beginning a Stretching Program

To Do and Not to Do

While most of us did it in high school gym class, bouncing while you stretch has gone the way of the beehive hairdo. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but we know much better these days.

If you bounce while stretching you're likely to engage those defensive mechanisms again, or, worse yet, override them and pull a muscle. To state the obvious, don't bounce. It won't help your flexibility.

The three most important things to remember about basic stretching are:

  1. Stretch to the point where you feel a gentle tension in the muscle. While that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it's really another way of saying that you should ease into a mild state of discomfort that is well short of pain.
  2. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds.
  3. As you hold the stretch, breathe deeply, stretching just a little farther with each exhalation.
It seems somewhat silly to mention, but it's crucial to remember to breathe while you stretch. Breathing helps to deliver fresh blood to your muscles. Get into the habit of practicing this deep-belly breathing. It will help you immensely when you lift weights. However, it's common practice to hold your breath as you move deeper into a stretch. Be mindful of this – it's a sign that you're pushing too hard or are resistant to the task at hand – and return to your breath. Not only will this help you to relax, it will allow you to stretch a little farther with each exhalation.

Deep breathing is not something that we do naturally at rest. In fact, most of us breathe shallowly from the chest and don't use our diaphragm. Try this now: Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath through your nose and fill your abdomen with air (you should feel your hand rise with your abdomen). Complete the breath by filling your chest with air (you should feel your hand rise with your chest). Now exhale through your mouth, expelling air from your abdomen first, then your chest. Repeat this slowly five times. You may feel a little dizzy or light-headed, but that's normal because you're not used to such oxygenated air.

Of course, you're not going to place your hand on your abdomen or your chest while you stretch or lift weights. (It's challenging enough to lift with two hands, let alone one.) Instead, practice inhaling deeply through your nose and forcefully out through your mouth. Once you realize the positive effect this has on your stretching (not to mention your sense of well-being), it will be a standard part of your workout.

Now that we've convinced you of the importance of getting (and staying) limber, let's take a look at some of our favorite stretches. Starting a routine is a little like working your way into a great book. The first 50 pages may seem laborious, but once you get into it, you'll be hard pressed to put it down. Do the following for two weeks. You'll be surprised how grateful your stiff body feels.

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Excerpted from he Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Training © 2003 by Deidre Johnson-Cane and Jonathan Cane. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide website or call 1-800-253-6476.


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