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    Photo Credit: Courtesy of Diakadi Body

Long and Loose: Six Stretches for Optimal Training

By Billy Polson

Until we are injured, experiencing joint pain, or unable to perform daily functions, most of us ignore the role of stretching and flexibility in our workout programs. Even I went through years ignoring stretching and warm-ups for my body. During those years, I tore a hamstring, had to stop running for a year because of plantar fasciitis, and tore a meniscus—all injuries due to muscle imbalances in my legs causing me to use my legs and joints improperly. This in turn led to faulty movement patterns and improper wearing on my joints. All of which could have been prevented with proper stretching. So today I'd like to give you a stretching program designed to diagnose and address tightnesses in your muscles. Do this program and you'll keep yourself strong and sound for the long haul.

The Length-Tension Relationship
The body is built as a system of levers, made up of muscles and tendons, each of them designed with a very specific ideal length-to-tension relationship. Your hip and knee, for example, are two of these lever systems. If you tend to have tight quadriceps and hip flexors (the muscles along the front of your thighs) and longer/weaker glutes and hamstrings (the muscles along the back of your thighs and your butt), the length-to-tension relationship around both of these joints would be off. This imbalance would cause your hip and knee to both work improperly, forcing your body to limit itself to smaller ranges of motion. Once you're there, any dynamic movement (suddenly running to cross the street, for instance) will force your body suddenly to move in a bigger range of motion than your muscles can handle. Your body will go to the next joint above or below the restricted joint to find that additional movement. In this case, you will probably need to use your back. This explains why so many people have back pain brought on by legs muscles that are overly tight, causing reduced range in their hips, and compensation in their back and spine. All of which can be very painful and dangerous. And that's the better outcome—in this situation your body could overly stretch, strain, or rip the tight muscles in order to force the range of motion. That can mean truly devastating injury.

So, whether you are an athlete who thinks your body feels great, a weekend warrior who gets minor back tension after a weekly softball game, a minor fitness enthusiast who bikes once a week, or even a person who does not workout—checking yourself for muscle imbalances is vital to keeping your body properly functioning, safe, and pain free.

Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three...
Below I have listed a quick check list of stretch tests you should perform on your body as part of your weekly workouts. I recommend trying each of the tests below to start with. If you find that you are tight in any of the areas, then follow the prescribed stretches behind each test as often as you can (daily if possible) until you are able to pass the test for the tight areas. For the areas of your body that are not tight in the tests, routinely check back in on a weekly basis or after intense workouts or new workouts/movements.

Some tests below are best performed with the assistance of a workout partner to help with finding the true limits of your joints' range of motion. However, all tests may also be done fairly well on your own. Note that if you find that you have an imbalance between your legs for the same muscle (for example, your right hamstring is much tighter than your left), then you should perform the stretch two to three times on your tight side for every single time on your other side. The goal is to always try for symmetry throughout your body.

Quadriceps and Hip Flexors
Test: Lie face down on a stretch or massage table with your right leg off the side of the table in a bent knee lunge position and the left leg straight back on top of the table. You should be able to touch the back of your left heel to your butt when you bend your knee. Try the same test for the right leg's quads and hip flexors by swapping the leg on the table and bending your right knee and trying to touch your heel to your butt. This test is best done with a workout partner, but if you don't have one you can use the stretch below to test your right and left sides by measuring how far away from the wall your knee is for a proper form kneeling stretch.

Corrective Stretch: The easiest way to stretch your left hip flexor alone is to start in a kneeling position with your left knee down and your right foot up front on ground. Sitting tall with good posture, squeeze your glutes so that the front of your hip opens up. If your hip flexors and quads are very tight, this may be all you can do for starters. If this does not feel like much of a stretch, then back up to a wall and, while on all fours, place the front of your left foot on the wall and then slowly come up to the same kneeling position you started in for the easier stretch. Start with your left knee on the ground far from the wall and your left toe on the wall—just as in the floor stretch, squeeze your glutes to stretch the front of the left leg. As this stretch feels easier, back your knee up closer to the wall and sit tall again and squeeze your glutes. Make sure you are never so close to the wall that you cannot sit up straight and squeeze your glutes for this stretch. Repeat the same stretches if your right quad and/or hip flexor are tight. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds squeezing your glutes the entire time.
Test: Lie on your back with both legs extended and try to raise your right leg straight into the air. You should be able to bring your right leg up to perpendicular to the floor without having to bend your knee. Perform the same test for your left leg. Again, this test can be performed with a workout partner or individually—especially if you are using a stretch strap, yoga strap, or towel wrapped under the ball of your stretching leg's foot.

Corrective Stretch: Lying on your back, wrap a towel or stretch strap under the ball of your left foot. Keep your right leg extended on the floor. Keeping your left leg straight, pull your it straight up as high as you can while keeping your knee straight. Then, slightly bend your left knee and pull your left leg a little bit higher, and straighten your left leg again for a five-second hold. Soften the knee again and raise the leg a bit higher and then push your left leg straight again for five seconds. Repeat this for five sets. Do the same on your right leg.
Hips I
Test: You'll use two different hip stretches to test your hip flexibility. First is the pigeon stretch. Start on all fours and bring your left knee a little forward, wrapping it under your body so that your left shin is perpendicular to your body. Stretch your right leg straight back as far as possible and lay your chest out over your shin with arms extended straight out forward. The goal is for your chest to be on your shin and your hips on the floor. Try the same stretch test for your right hip.

Corrective Stretch: Hold the pigeon stretch for 20 seconds.
Hips II
Test: Your second hip test is the groin stretch. Again start on all fours. Open your legs as wide as possible, with toes out and insteps to the floor, and ankles and knees at a right angle. Keeping your back flat, sit as far back as you can. Your goal on this one is to have your hips within two to three inches off the floor.

Corrective Stretch: Hold the groin stretch for 20 seconds.
Test: Ideally, you'd test your calves with a goniometer to measure the angle of your ankles. So instead we'll use a test to give you the feeling you'd get with a goniometer. Stand on a platform and drop your right heel off the back of the step, keeping your knee straight to see how far you can bring your heel down. Repeat the same stretch test on the left heel. Feel for your calves being extra tight or even more for one calf to be tighter than the other.

Corrective Stretch: Perform the calf stretch test, holding each stretch for 20 seconds.
IT Bands
Test: Again, this is a tough one to test without the assistance of a trainer or therapist, so I recommend using a foam roller as a test for tension in your IT Bands. Lie on your side on the floor, and place a foam roller perpendicular to your body under your lower hip. Let your upper leg either lie in front of your lower leg with your upper foot on the floor—or, to really put some weight on the lower leg and dig deep, stack your upper leg onto your lower leg. Propped up and walking on your elbows, slowly start to roll the foam roller down your IT Band towards your knee. You are feeling for extreme tension or knots and adhesions (aka speed bumps).

Corrective Stretch: Using the same test method above, stop and hold for a 20 count on each knot. Roll all the way until you reach the side of your knee. Repeat on opposite leg.
About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body training gym, which was voted the best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006 and 2007. A competitive swimmer and triathlete in his own right, Polson has over 15 years of experience working as a coach and trainer, and was recently named by Men's Journal Magazine (December 2005) as one of the Top 100 Trainers in America.