The First Step: Dynamic Stretching

The First Step: Dynamic Stretching

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Dynamic stretching sounds very exciting, doesn’t it? Even if it seems to be a bit of an oxymoron. We’re familiar with stretching as a slow, careful activity, something to get you ready for the action—not an active thing itself.

But some experts suggest that dynamic stretching might be the best kind of stretching for a warm-up; save the bending, reaching and holding for your cool down, they say. So what is dynamic stretching, and why is it helpful?

First, the stretching you’re most likely familiar with is called static stretching. It involves lengthening a joint or muscle by extending your body and holding it in place for 10 to 30 seconds, allowing the tissue to release on its own. Static stretches are best performed after a workout, when the body is already warm and loosened up. In fact, research at the University of Nevada has shown that static stretches may actually decrease your power and performance—definitely not the desired effect right before a workout!

Dynamic stretches are designed to take your body through the movements you’ll perform in your exercises to follow. With each repetition, you take the joint or muscle through the series, extending a little further each time. Dynamic stretching helps bring blood flow to the area that you’re going to use, oxygenating those muscles, and loosens any stiffness. It also increases your kinesthetic awareness—your sense of your body in space and your ability to navigate as you move.

The key to dynamic stretching is to control the movement. This is definitely not the time to be sloppy! The goal of stretching is to avoid injury, not create injury through the stretch itself. Don’t exaggerate movements or engage in any explosive motion. Steady and sustained is the name of the game.

To engage in dynamic stretching, think about the activity that you’re about to perform and consider what joints and muscles it employs. Let’s use running as an example. Most obviously you’re going to use your hamstrings and quadriceps, your calves and ankles. Rather than propping your heel up on a step and holding to stretch your hamstrings, then standing on one leg and grabbing your other ankle behind you to stretch your quadriceps, you might do some walking lunges. These will warm up all of your leg muscles while loosening your ankles, knees and hip flexors.

Perhaps you’re planning to take a barre class. You know that the instructor is going to call for lots of leg lifts and engage your core. You can limber up in these areas by standing at the barre and doing some high kicks and leg swings, flexing and pointing your toes, then standing with your hands on your hips twisting from side to side to warm up your obliques.

Got the idea?

If you practice yoga, you can perform a few sun salutations to reap the rewards of dynamic stretching. Many trainers also advise marrying dynamic stretching with a few minutes of light cardio such as jogging or brisk walking to further increase blood flow before a workout.

The key: to wake up the muscles and joints that you’re about to exercise. If you’ve been sitting all day at a desk, you might be surprised at how knotted and inflexible you really are. Jumping into an activity cold can cause those tight spots to strain or tear. Take a few extra minutes before your next workout for some dynamic stretching and, as Taylor Swift so famously sings, shake it off!