A flexible schedule for stretching

Exercise: Colder temperatures make warm-ups and cool-downs even more important.

December 12, 1999|By Judi Sheppard Missett | Judi Sheppard Missett,LOS ANGELES TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As temperatures continue to drop, it becomes even more important to warm up properly before your workout and stretch adequately after. Maintaining your flexibility is a key component of injury prevention.

A proper warm-up lasts from five to 10 minutes and should include gentle movements that gradually raise your heart rate and resemble the movements you will be doing more vigorously later on.

When your workout is complete, your cool-down should include plenty of stretching. However, poor technique can actually leave you stretching the wrong muscles -- and straining to do so.

The following tips will help you reap the maximum benefits from your flexibility exercises.

Begin your stretches with your spine in a neutral position. Stretching is similar to weight training when it comes to the position of your spine. If you don't begin in neutral, you won't target the correct muscles and/or target the muscles correctly. A neutral spine position requires that you maintain the natural "S" curve of the back, with a slight inward curve at the neck and at the lower back. This also keeps the pelvis in a neutral position without an undesirable anterior or posterior tilt.

Separate the muscle's point of origin from its insertion. For example, the hamstring muscles along the back of the thigh originate on the ischial tuberosities (the sit bones on the bottom of your pelvis). They insert just below the knee joint on either side. Move these two points away from each other and you've got an effective stretch.

Try to visualize your muscles as you perform flexibility exercises. Concentrate on maintaining a neutral spine and gently increasing the distance -- from the muscle's origination to its point of insertion. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and never stretch past the point of mild tension.

The following hamstring stretch incorporates the use of a towel to help facilitate proper alignment, as shown in accompanying photo.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Holding the ends of a towel in each hand, bring one knee up toward your chest loop the towel under your foot. Slowly extend your leg until you feel a gentle stretch along the back of your thigh. Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 20 seconds, and repeat with the other leg.

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