Simple Stretches for Six Body Parts

Copyright 2006 by Leonore H. Dvorkin

To go to the Exercise Instruction main page, click here.

Note: This article was originally published in the April 2006 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

Hello again, everyone! Here's hoping that those of you who resolved in January to get fitter this year are sticking with your exercise plans. If you still need a little push to get moving, maybe you'll find some motivation here, as these stretches require no equipment, and some can be done standing or seated.

My previous three articles were about the benefits of weight training and specific exercises for the upper and lower body. Most of those exercises require only a few pairs of light to medium-weight dumbbells (handheld weights of cast iron or other materials). To find dumbbells at under $1.00 per pound, try Sears or Play It Again Sports. Those stores also sell good weight benches.

Regular stretching has many benefits. It can reduce the rate of sports injuries, relieve muscular tension, calm frazzled nerves, and help correct postural defects. Along with aerobic exercise, strength training, and a good diet, stretching is an essential component of overall fitness.

Caution: Don't do strenuous stretching before engaging in a sports activity! That can actually increase your rate of injuries. Warm up your muscles with gentle calisthenics or a mild version of your sports activity, and save the serious stretching routine for after your workout, when your muscles will be warmer and looser.

Stretching indoors at home is many people's choice. Make sure the air around you is not too cold, and wear loose, comfortable clothing. If you're doing lower body stretches, choose pants or shorts with an elastic waistband and a loose shirt. If you're sitting or lying on the floor, do that on an exercise mat or carpet. Don't be surprised if your dog or cat decides to join you on the floor. Animals, who stretch from instinct, love it when you come down to their level!

Neck stretch

This is a great anytime tension reliever. - Sit up straight in a firm chair, feet apart, hands on knees, palms up. With eyes closed, turn your head as far to the right as possible, drop your chin, and hold for 15-20 seconds. Turn head to left, drop chin, hold. Repeat as desired.

Shoulder and upper back stretch

Stand with arms down in front of body, one hand crossed over the other, head dropped forward. Steadily push hands down toward the floor as hard as possible. If one side is tighter than the other, pull down on the hand of the tighter side. Hold for 10-15 seconds. Alternate this with the stretch just below.

Stretch for the chest and fronts of shoulders

In my classes, we alternate this with the exercise just above.

Stand, putting arms up in an exaggerated "Hands up!" position: elbows down by sides, forearms vertical, palms facing front. Push arms down and back as hard as possible, holding for 10-15 seconds.

Lying hip and back stretch

This is a favorite in my classes, as it works on the deep muscles in the back.

Lie on your back on the floor, legs bent, arms by sides. Put the right leg over the left thigh, and roll legs to the right, so that the left hip and left lower back stretch comfortably. Your right leg will be pushing on the outside of the left knee. Hold for 10-15 seconds. Then put the left leg over the right thigh and roll the legs to the left, to stretch the right hip and lower back. Hold. Repeat as desired.

Bent-knee hamstring stretch

This one is an oldie but goodie. It works on both the front and back thigh muscles, as well as on the lower to mid back.

Sit on floor with left leg bent, right leg straight and somewhat out to the side. Right foot is relaxed, toes toward ceiling; don't point the toes downward. Gently stretch the torso over the right leg, holding lower leg with hands. The face aims for the right foot. Hold at least 15 seconds, lengthening the torso out over the straight leg. Don't bounce or strain. Then change legs: left leg straight, right leg bent, and repeat the stretch. Repeat on both sides as desired. Note: Never do the so-called hurdler's stretch, with one leg straight, the other leg bent behind you, the foot turned out to the outside of the thigh. That's very hard on the knees.

Calf stretches

Place hands on the seat of a chair or weight bench. Put right leg far back behind you. Toes of both feet face front. Gently push the heel of the back foot down toward the floor, so that the calf muscles and Achilles tendon are stretched. Hold for 15-20 seconds and repeat with the left leg back. This stretch relaxes the lower legs and helps correct the damage caused by wearing high heels. Variation: Stand with toes on the bottom step of a staircase, heels off the step. Relax and hold.