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10 Minutes to a Flexible Body

WomanStretching_300Physical therapist and Olympic trainer Bob Cooley shares a 10-minute routine that will lengthen and elasticize your muscles. From his book The Genius of Flexibility.

Why aren’t people as flexible as they want to be? Is it that a handful of fortunate people are simply born flexible, while most of us are doomed to live the life of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz — perpetually tight, stiff, creaky, and getting worse with age? What is that secret something flexible people just naturally do when they stretch, that special knowledge that’s so obvious to them yet remains a mystery to the rest of us? What’s happening inside of them that is somehow not happening inside most of us?

Give Me Ten Minutes!
Give me just ten minutes. That’s all I need to show you that you can be more flexible than you ever imagined. What I am about to teach you is not something you already know. It is something completely new, something that you’ve never been told before.

Trying something new isn’t always easy. You may feel uncertain and doubtful or think that you already know what I’m about to tell you. But if you hang in there for only ten minutes, I’m confident that you will realize that what I’ve discovered is truly transforming. I know that after you see how much more flexible you become after trying only a few simple stretches, you are going to say, “Ahhh, that’s unbelievable. A new, organic way to stretch.”

Discovery exercise 1: hamstring stretch
Benefits of this stretch
Stretches the muscles on the back of your hip, thigh, lower leg, ankle, and foot.

Getting into this stretch
Lie on your back and bring your right thigh toward your chest. Then bend your right knee so that your right heel is near the back of your right hip. Your left leg can be either straight or bent.

Resisting: how to create a great stretch without pain
Grab hold of your right foot with both hands. Contract the muscles on the back of your thigh (your hamstrings) so that your heel pulls toward the back of your hips. Keep contracting your hamstrings, but simultaneously use your hands to pull your heel upward, unbending your knee and straightening out your lower leg as you lengthen your hamstrings. You are lengthening but also contracting your hamstrings at the same time. Yes, you can contract and lengthen a muscle at the same time! And yes, you must maximally contract to discover your true flexibility range. Return to the starting position and do 6–10 reps. Now change to the left leg and do the same stretch. Stand up and check out your flexibility after the complete set.

What you discover
Did you discover that you are more flexible? Most people do. Why? Because you traditionally only lengthen a muscle to try to stretch it. But this time you lengthened and contracted your hamstring to stretch. You’ve probably never done this before. It’s called resistance stretching.

The Secret Your Body Already Knows
Contracting while lengthening a muscle at the same time may seem contradictory. But in fact your body does this all the time — unconsciously and naturally. Isn’t that what you do when you wake up in the morning? Don’t you reach up over your head, elongating the muscles in your torso, shoulders, and arms, and then contract them at a certain point? It’s natural to resist when you stretch. (And it feels good, too!)

Have you ever watched a cat get up after her nap? She reaches forward with her paws, arches her back, then pulls backward and contracts the same muscles she was trying to elongate by reaching forward. Animals instinctively understand the need to contract muscles when stretching. And they do it so well. Let’s be as flexible as cats!

Resistance stretching is contracting and lengthening a muscle at the same time, something you were never told to do. You also must maximally contract while lengthening to see your true range of flexibility. This is the secret to real stretching and permanent changes in flexibility.

You know that in strength training you contract a muscle while shortening it simultaneously. But could you have guessed that in stretching you also need to contract a muscle while lengthening it at the same time? The harder you contract a muscle when stretching — by pushing or squeezing some part of your body against the floor, a wall, yourself, or someone else — the more your flexibility will improve. It may surprise you to learn that your muscles need to contract in both strength training and in stretching. And that it takes twice the force to stretch a muscle than to strengthen it!

Get Immediate Results
All right, now let’s really go somewhere with stretching! Let’s use resistance stretching for your lower body involving the muscles on the front of your thighs (your quads) and then for your upper body involving muscles on the back of your shoulders (your trapezius). You’ll also learn how you can change each stretch into a strengthening exercise for the same muscles.

Remember: In resistance stretching, you always start in a position where the muscles you want to stretch are shortened as much as possible. And then to stretch these muscles, you contract and lengthen them at the same time by moving some part of your body. The process of contracting and lengthening a muscle at the same time causes those muscles to stretch in a new and powerful way.

Once you see how the resistance stretching technique works, you’ll discover that you can become as flexible as you wish anywhere in your body. I’ll show you how to choose the stretches for the parts of your body you want to make more flexible. You’ll do several reps of the chosen stretches, noticing a remarkable increase in flexibility after each stretch. It’s fun to have other people watch you while you do these stretches. They can observe how much more flexible you look, while you can observe how much more flexible you feel.

You pull yourself together when you use resistance stretching, instead of yanking yourself apart as you do in traditional stretching.

Discovery exercise 2: front of thigh stretch at wall
Benefits of this stretch
Stretches the muscles along the front of your hip, thigh, lower leg, ankle, and foot.

Getting into this stretch
Kneel on all fours with the wall directly behind you. Bend your left knee and bring your left leg up against the wall, resting the top of your foot against the wall (you can use a towel or small pillow to protect your foot). Step up onto your right foot, lunge deeply forward, and slant your torso slightly forward.

Resisting: how to get a stretch without pain
While leaning forward in a lunge, push against the wall with your left foot by contracting the muscles on the front of your left thigh. As you continue to push your left leg and foot against the wall, bring your hips back to your foot against the wall by pushing yourself forward with your right leg. Moving your body backward lengthens the muscles on the front of your thigh, but because they are also contracting, they stretch. That’s right! You’re getting it!

Remember, the same muscles that are being stretched are being contracted. Stretching and contracting a muscle are not mutually exclusive endeavors. And you must maximally contract while lengthening to see your true flexibility range. They work together to create the most powerful stretches possible.

What you discover
This use of resistance results in greater flexibility — muscles begin to stretch farther than before. In principle, to generate great resistance in any stretch, you need to oppose or fight against the stretch, so to speak.

Now you are learning how to resist in a stretch by feeling how your body naturally does it. You absolutely need to resist maximally sometimes in order to make any muscle really flexible.

After resisting only once, you should be able to bend your knee farther and get your ankle closer to the back of your hips: instant flexibility! After repeating the stretch 6–10 times, you’ll notice even greater increases in your muscle’s elasticity.

Let’s add strengthening now.

Don’t stop with stretching — strengthen the same muscles. Switch sides. You can strengthen your quads by starting in the position where you finished your stretch, where the muscles are as long as possible. Continue to contract your quads by pushing against the wall with your ankle and foot, as you push yourself forward into a lunge. Resist your forward lunging by pushing yourself backward with your front leg. That’s how you strengthen your quads. You need to use maximum force here also.

To reverse any stretch into a strengthening exercise, simply reverse the starting and ending positions, and reverse how you create resistance — but in both cases always keep contracting the muscles you are stretching or strengthening.

Let’s try a stretching exercise for your upper body now.

Discovery exercise 3: grapevine arms
Benefits of the stretch (and strengthening)
Stretches the muscles on the back of your shoulders, neck, arm, and index finger.

Getting into this stretch
This stretch can be done standing, sitting, or lying on your back — whatever feels most comfortable to you. Cross your arms, twist your lower arms around each other, and clasp your hands together. This lengthens muscles on the back of your shoulders and down your arms into your index finger.

Resisting: how to create a stretch without pain
Press and twist your arms against each other by pulling your elbows against each other and pressing your hands together. This causes the muscles on the back of your shoulders and arms that have been lengthened to contract and stretch. You can tilt and turn your head to either side to create more stretch in your neck. Keep resisting for 6–10 seconds, then switch sides. Remember to maximally resist in order to see your true flexibility range.

What you discover
As unbelievable as it may seem, using resistance gives you immediate changes in flexibility. You’ll find that the increases in your flexibility accumulate and eventually become permanent. Repeat the three stretches. They should feel a lot different during and after the second and third sets — repeats of the exercises. You experience immediate changes in flexibility and strength after just a few exercises using resistance stretching (and strengthening).


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