Commander's Fit Tip: It's a stretch: Simple technique prevents a major injury

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  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
If you've been following along over the last year, you are well on your way toward getting the most out of your workouts, so it's time to look at a little maintenance action to make sure you can sustain your efforts over the long haul.

One of the most beneficial, and unfortunately, often overlooked fitness components is flexibility, and flexibility is all about stretching. I'm not talking about a few bounces before a run.

I'm talking about a regimen as disciplined as the time you put into your workout.

Skip this and you'll pay sooner or later, erasing all the gains you worked so hard for. I know the temptation all too well ... you get a little rushed, and you focus all your time on the "workout."

We all do.

But the minutes we trade away accumulate, and there's just no substitute for the time it takes to restore your flexibility. That's right ... restore it.

The workouts actually reduce your flexibility over time. As you challenge your muscles, tendons and ligaments, you'll likely overdo it from time to time, and the healed tissue will be "tight."

A stretching regimen is the only cure, and the only safe way to prevent a minor misstep from becoming a major surgery.

Stretching requires just as much planning and attention as your workout and, in fact, can't be a separate part. Your routine will be much more effective if you integrate stretches as an element of your workout, rather than seeing it as a "necessary evil" before and after. And you need both ... before and after.

Here's why.

Stretching serves two primary masters ... injury prevention and range of motion.

But the techniques and goals differ for the "before" and "after" routines. The "before" elements help you "listen to your body" and prepare the body for the ensuing loads.

But these moves don't really contribute to flexibility. For that, you have to stretch a "tired muscle," making the post work out effort the real money maker.

I've seen some pretty spooky routines over the years, and all I can say is this is one area where you absolutely need the advice of a trainer.

You can truly waste your time if you don't perfect your technique.

So many "basic stretches" violate "rule #1" ... don't force your body to fight the stretch. The classic example of a "bad stretch" is the classic "bend over and touch your toes."

This move targets your hamstrings and most actually feel a stretch with this move. It's easy to convince yourself that you are making progress too ... you can measure how close you get to the ground or for the real gumbies out there, how much of your hand hits the ground.

But think about it this way.

As you bend over, what muscle group engages to prevent you from "face planting?"

That's right, your hamstrings!

But you just can't stretch an engaged group. Effective stretches work on a relaxed muscle. For our hamstring example, the hamstrings are relaxed if you lie on your back and put your leg up towards a vertical position.

Rule #2 ... just like weightlifting, a partner makes all the difference. Remember rule #1?

Well, if you can totally relax and let someone else do all the work, you'll make big gains in a hurry. For the hamstring stretch, your partner can lift your leg towards the vertical position. This "passive" technique is exactly how the pros do it.

Rule #3 ... never stretch a "cold muscle." That's where injuries happen, and these are the easiest to prevent.

That's why I really like warming up on an elliptical trainer. Just 10 minutes (five forward, five in reverse) works almost all your body parts with minimal impact.

Then you are ready for a stretch to assess your condition and recovery prior to a workout.

So, for the next few editions, I'll offer some moves targeting individual groups and techniques to avoid injury along the way.

But in the meantime, go see our experts at the fitness center and get some hands on help.

The minutes you spend there well literally add years to your body's ability to keep you moving!