When I started out in the gym, I was very self-conscious. I was 40 pounds overweight and really out of shape. I would sweat like crazy if I was on the treadmill for more than 3 minutes. I couldn’t really touch my toes and would often get tension headaches from all the stress I was under.
I knew about “healthy food” but wasn’t eating it. I was drinking at least a bottle of wine each night.
I was in rough shape.
I had an idea about a few exercises from the couple of months I “played in the gym” in my early 20’s but didn’t really know how to make them work for me.
I was out of touch with my body and what it needed.
Over the last 3 years I feel like I’ve learned through trial and error what a “user’s manual” might have said about my body. How to feel good, how to keep in a good mindset, how to look good, and be healthy. I wish someone had showed me how to operate this body I’m inhabiting!
There are tons of articles out there telling you about what exercise to do for chest, how to get abs for summer, or even how to get the roundest perkiest butt (LOL).
But not many that speak to beginners and what you need to do. In my opinion, the very first thing you need to consider is your mobility. If you have limited mobility you’re going to have limited range of motion as well as a MUCH higher risk of causing injury to yourself.
Understanding how to warm up your muscles, tendons, and ligaments is critical for healthy movements and overall general health.
The two spots that most people need to work on is their hamstrings and chest mobility/back strength. Sitting at a desk all day causes your hamstrings to be tight and shorten. Likewise working at a computer tends to cause hunched shoulders and weak back muscles. These two spots alone would make for a much happier, healthier, and sexier you! Yes, you’ll look better as well, which will help your confidence not only because you feel better but also because you look better!
First I’d like to say that this is all relative – the old adage “no pain no gain” is flat wrong. It should be “no discomfort, no gain”. Discomfort is pushing the boundaries of what your body is used to doing by a very small amount so you don’t hurt yourself. Pain is pushing too far and causing true damage that cannot be easily repaired by your body in a day or so. You’ll know your threshold – LISTEN to it!
DO NOT BOUNCE! Bouncing is different from “pulsing” which is what we’re going for. If you bounce you are not using controls and could hurt yourself. Pulsing is moving with control in tempo with your breath.
Before any stretching routine you want to make sure that your body is warmed up – getting the blood flowing to your muscles, the fluids in your joints are moving well, and oxygen and nutrients are circulating to your body. You want to perform some light form of exercise – walking, stationary bike, eliptical machine, whatever will raise your heart rate and body core temperature a bit. You don’t need to push hard – this is simply a warmup. Do this for 5-10 minutes and then proceed to these stretches.
Before beginning any fitness routine, please consult your doctor – they’re going to be able to advise you on how far to push yourself and what limits are safe for you without causing any damage.
I like to do 3 stretches specific to my hamstrings. They’re designed to be in increasing difficulty so you can ease into greater muscular and tendon lengthening.
The first is the side lunge. This is a great stretch because it targets two sets of muscles/tendons at the same time – the Hamstrings as well as the groin area – both of which many people need help with. Start with your feet about twice shoulder length apart and sway side to side by keeping one knee straight (don’t lock it, just keep it straight) and allowing the other to bend down. Your hips and feet should be in one plane. Go gently, slowly and methodically from one side to the other gently lowering yourself as far as you can.
Use something to steady yourself at first (like a doorknob, wall, or bench) and also to support your weight until you can get low enough to allow your hands to support yourself.
Remember to breathe through each stretch and not to hold your breath – during the exhalation of each breath try and relax the muscle so that it lengthens and dissolves the tension. Remember – pain is bad, slight discomfort is what you’re aiming for. When you feel the stretch, hold it for 10-30 seconds and switch sides. Do this 4-5 times for each side.
Next up is a forward bend stretch. It’s meant to isolate your hamstrings in a safe and controlled way. It’s pretty simple but extremely effective. Put your feet about shoulder width apart but one in front of the other with your toes pointed ahead. Make sure your feet are flat to the floor and your hips square with your shoulders. You should look like you’re stuck in a freeze frame of walking with purpose! Bend your front knee slightly and bend at hips while you lean forward. Make sure to keep your butt sticking out so you’re hinging at your hips – you don’t want to curl your back downward. You should feel a stretch in your front leg’s hamstring. Bend forward as far is comfortable and remember to breathe – with each breach move forward gently until you feel a stretch. If you need, look in a mirror and make sure that you’re bending at the hips, keeping your lower back arched in a natural curve – the tendency is to bend at the back as if you were bending over to touch your toes. But with your butt stuck out and maintaining the hinge at the hips, you won’t need to bend much to feel a stretch. Take this one easy and controlled. Repeat 4-5 times on each leg.
Runners Hamstring Stretch
The last up is similar in it’s isolation of the previous one but by now you’ve warmed up your legs a bit and can do something a bit more challenging.
The same rules apply here as in the last stretch – keep your hips in line with your shoulders, hinge at the hips instead of bending your back. You’ll want to find a low bench, chair, set of stairs – something about 1-3 feet tall, depending on your natural level of flexibility.
Put one foot up on the bench so your toes are pointed straight up – this part is important as it will isolate a different part of your hamstring. You should feel the stretch right under your kneecap. Bend GENTLY and slowly forward keeping the hinge action at your hips until you feel the stretch. Again, a little movement will give a great amount of stretching if you’re using the correct form and hinging at the hips instead of bending your back. Repeat 4-5 times on each leg. Each stretch should last about 5-10 seconds so don’t over stretch and hurt yourself. Only push yourself as far as you feel safe.
Chest Wall Stretch
This is pretty easy but very effective. It helps isolate your pectoral muscles to help loosen up your chest and open up your posture from all that sitting at a desk! All you need is a doorframe or a wall. You want to put your hand up so you have a 90 degree angle at your elbow and shoulder – like you’re making a “peace sign”. Then take your forearm and place it against the wall and gently turn your hips and shoulders so your arm is pushed toward your back. You want to make sure there is a 90 degree bend at each of those joints though – it should look like a big zig-zag but with 90 degree angles. This is very effective if you do it consistently. This will help to open up your ribcage so you can counteract the effects of sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day!
Mid-back Band Exercise
This exercise requires some sort of resistance band, but they’re quite inexpensive – you can pick one up (or a total set) for less than $25. You can do it sitting at your desk or when you get up in the morning – it’s very simple. Take a resistance band and pull it apart so that your arms are outstretched and the band is tight against your chest. Your hand positioning needs to have your thumbs up and pointed toward the back of you. Stretch the band by pushing your thumbs back behind you and hold for 2-3 seconds and repeat for 8-10 reps. The idea is you want to squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your arms at an approximate 90 degree angle from your body.
BONUS ADVANCED STRETCHES
Let’s say you’ve been doing these stretches for a few months and feel like you can do more.
Well you’re right – you can use a little known technique to get rapid advances in your flexibility. It’s called PNF, which stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. Even though that’s a long title, the concept is pretty simple. You want to contract your muscle under tension for 5-10 seconds, and then you relax that muscle and perform a slow steady stretch for 20-30 seconds. The idea is that while you’re contracting your muscle, the neurons are being activated and engaged. Once you stop pushing against the tension and relax it will take your neurons a little while to recover, allowing you to stretch a bit further.
You’ll need some way of holding your foot with an exercise band, a yoga band, even a belt or scarf can work. Lie on your back and raise one leg up with your knee straight (but not locked). Loop the band onto your foot so when you try and put your leg down you’re under tension. Hold the band with your hands and try and push your leg back down for 5-10 seconds. The amount of force you use will depend on your level of health and flexibility. Don’t overdo it or you could hurt yourself. It doesn’t take much pressure. Release the tension, and now use the band to gently pull your foot toward your face. Keep your leg straight but not locked – you should be able to gently pull your foot toward your face farther than you could before. Hold this while breathing for 20-30 seconds. Do this 3-4 times and switch sides.