We often think of strengthening and stretching
as two different things. First you strengthen, then you stretch. Or maybe you stretch before you strengthen. Either way, it’s important to recognize that they don’t need to be separate. In fact, some of the best stretching
can be done while strengthening.
Every strength exercise has two types of contractions: concentric and eccentric. Concentric is the shortening of the muscle, which is typical when lifting a weight. Eccentric is the lengthening of the muscle, which occurs when lowering a weight. If you take a basic bicep curl as an example, the bicep is contracting concentrically as you bend your elbow and bring the dumbbell up toward your shoulder, and contracting eccentrically as you straighten out your elbow and lower the weight back down.
Since the muscles are lengthening during eccentric contractions, eccentric exercises can actually be a great way to stretch. Adding weight to an eccentric exercise helps the muscle lengthen while also working to control the weight, so this is a great way to stretch your muscles in a functional way.
Make sure to speak with a healthcare professional before initiating any new activity to ensure it is safe for you. It’s important to note that eccentric exercises do put a lot of tension on the muscle fibers, so make sure to use gravity or light weights initially and add weight slowly to prevent injury.
Stretching is important to help maintain range of motion at your joints. Having flexible muscles reduces risk of injury and keeps you mobile and limber. It’s common for certain muscles to become shortened or tight with too much overlap of muscle fibers. When this happens, the muscles can’t fully contract.
Imagine jumping from rock to rock as you cross a river. Trying to contract a shortened muscle is like trying to get across the river as quick as you can, but the rocks are too close together and you can’t achieve a full stride from rock to rock.
Shortened muscles can also lead to discomfort and stiffness. It’s important to lengthen these muscles to their optimal length to minimize discomfort as well as put them in the best position to produce a strong, powerful contraction.
It’s no secret that strengthening has a multitude of benefits. Resistance training
helps with weight control, glucose control and cardiovascular health. It also reduces the risk of injury and strengthens bones. The list of benefits goes on and on.
Build your routine
The best way to grow muscle is to work with weights that feel heavy and challenging – even if you’re aiming for a lean look. Wondering where to start? Use a weight that’s heavy enough for six to eight repetitions. If you’re doing 15 to 20 repetitions, it’s time to add a few pounds. When you’ve worked your way up to 12 reps, increase the weight.
1. Sumo squat
Stretches: Adductors (groin area), gluteus maximus, hamstrings
Strengthens: Adductors, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, quadriceps.
- Step with your feet much wider than hips-width apart and toes turned out to 45°.
- If using a weight, hold it with both hands between your legs.
- Keeping your back flat and chin up, squat down until the weight almost touches the ground.
- Squeezing your glutes and thighs, bring the weight with you up to standing.
*Tip: Once you have the technique down, challenge yourself to go pretty heavy on these. Your legs are stronger than you think!
2. Romanian deadlift
Stretches: Hamstrings (back of the thighs)
Strengthens: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus, spinal erectors
- Stand with your feet hips width apart and knees slightly bent
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand
- Take a deep breath in and brace your core, then lower the dumbbells down towards the middle of your shin
- Make sure your back is flat, neck is neutral and your knees stay slightly bent the entire time.
- Once you go as far as your hamstrings will let you, activate your glutes and hamstrings and pull yourself back up to standing.
*Tip: If you feel pulling in your lower back, drop the weights and watch yourself do the movement in a mirror, focusing on maintaining a neutral spine, keeping the dumbbells close to your body and using the strength of your legs to move the weight.
3. Split squat (static lunge)
Stretches: Hip flexors (front of the hips), and quadriceps (front of the thighs), calves
Strengthen: Quadriceps, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, hamstrings, calves
- Step your feet so one is in front of your body and one is behind you in a lunge position. All toes should be facing forward.
- If using weight, hold one in each hand or just one weight with both hands up by your chest.
- Bend both legs at the same time and lower your back knee towards the ground
- Once your front knee is bent to about 90° and your back knee is almost touching the ground, push through your legs and return to standing.
- Make sure to keep your torso upright throughout the whole motion and to move straight up and down, not forward and backward.
- You will most likely fill a big stretch in the front of your back thigh as you lower down, so slowly increase the depth over time as your hip flexors gain flexibility!
4. Dumbbell pullover
Stretches: Latissimus dorsi (the large back muscles), pectorals, triceps
Strengthens: Latissimus dorsi, pectorals, triceps, upper abdominals
- Grab one dumbbell and lay on your back.
- Activate your abs to keep your back flat against the mat.
- Hold a wide end of the dumbbell with each hand and straighten your arms so the weight is directly over your body.
- With elbows slightly bent, slowly bring the dumbbell towards the ground and over your head.
- When the dumbbell lightly taps the ground behind you use your back muscles to bring the dumbbell back over your body.
- You may be limited by your back flexibility, so just bring the weight as far overhead as you can, slowly increasing this overtime.
5. Dumbbell chest fly
Stretches: Pectorals (or your chest muscles)
Strengthens: Pectorals, anterior deltoid
- Grab two dumbbells and lay on your back.
- Hold the two weights straight over your body.
- Keep a slight bend in your elbows and slowly bring both weights out to your sides and towards the ground, as if you were opening up your wings.
- Go as far as you can without letting the weights touch the ground and then squeeze your chest and bring them back to meet in the center.
*Tip: You will get even more range of motion and a greater stretch if you perform this on a bench. If you have access to one, give that a shot!