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    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

Stretch for success

By Joe Marino

We all skip meals from time to time. It's an extra five to 10 minutes that we can tack on to the morning commute (or to the snooze button). But when it comes to exercise, too often we overlook one of the most important ways to start and finish a workout—stretching.

Set aside five to 15 minutes before and after each workout and you'll immediately notice the benefits of stretching outweigh the time cost. You'll not only experience greater range of motion and reduced tension, but you'll also improve your posture and decrease physical and mental stress, says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., FACSM, chief exercise physiologist and vice president of educational services at American Council on Exercise (ACE).

"Ideally, at least 30 minutes, three times per week, should be spent on flexibility training," Bryant says. "But even just five minutes of stretching at the beginning or end of an exercise session is better than nothing."

The following stretch-for-success prescription for each of the most tension-troubling muscle zones is specialized for men performing general weight training or athletics. It was created exclusively for RealJock by Mike Clausen, a San Francisco-based certified trainer and co-owner of Diakadi Body Personal Training and Wellness Center.

Note: Each stretch should be performed smoothly and deliberately; do not let your limbs bounce. If you experience pain or discomfort when moving through a full range of motion (that is, an entire stretch), stop. If it persists, consult a trainer or physical therapist.

1. Muscle target: Chest/upper body (see Photos 1 and 2)
Stretch Rx: Before exercise, Clausen recommends the following moves, performed with a 36-by-6-inch half-cylindrical foam roller, a soft, yet sturdy one- stability and resistance training tool available at most gyms.

Place a half cylinder roller on the floor and lie flat with your spine resting upon the spine of the roller so that your body is supported from head to butt. Bend you knees with your feet on the floor and extend your arms off the sides of the roller in right angles from your body (palms facing up). Try to bring your entire forearm and elbow to the floor. Keep your chin gently tucked and avoid arching your neck. Hold for about 20 to 30 seconds. Release and rest.

Next, with your palms and legs still resting in a 90-angle angle off of the roller (knees bent and feet pressing into the floor), raise your arms above your head while touching the floor (as if you were making a snow angel). Hold 20 to 30 seconds. Release slowly and rest. Increase your range by pulling your arms even further above your head so that the sides of your upward-facing palms nearly touch.

If you still experience tension, try the above exercises while gripping dumbbells. Do this exercise consistently until your chest loosens up and your forearms can remain on the floor throughout movement.

2. Muscle target: Calves
Stretch Rx: Standing on the balls of your feet on the edge of a step or platform, drop your heels off the edge and hold it for 15 to 20 seconds.

Or try a runner's calf stretch: Stand straight an arm's length from the wall with your feet hip-width apart. Raise your arms to shoulder height and press your hands into the wall as you bend your left knee slightly and kick back the right leg about a foot or two behind you. While keeping your right leg fairly straight, and without moving its position, place the heel of your right foot on the ground. If you don't feel it working your calves, try moving your right leg back further. Hold for 15 seconds, then reverse legs. As you stretch keep your upper body vertical; don't bend forward.

3. Muscle target: Hamstrings (see Photo 3)
Stretch Rx: If you experience tightness when bending over and touching your hands to the ground while keeping your legs straight, try the following.

Lie on your back with a resistance band or belt wrapped around the arch of your right foot. Pull your right foot straight up, keeping your knee straight. Hold this position for 15 seconds. Then lower your right leg to about 45 degrees, pointing your toe to each side in a held stretch for 15 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

For more focused tension taming, place a tennis ball under the tightest portion of your hamstring (one at a time) while sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you, toes pointing upward, palms pressing into the floor to support you, and pressure applied to the ball through your leg muscles. Hold this position for 15 to 20 seconds to allow the fibers to relax in this lengthened state. Repeat anywhere else you feel hamstring tightness.

4. Muscle target: Lower back (see Photo 4)
Stretch Rx: Frequently, what we experience as lower-back discomfort actually stems directly from tight hamstrings and glutes. You may wish to combine the aforementioned hamstring stretches with the following stretches.

Lie on your back with both legs extended on the floor, toes pointed. Lift your right leg up to a 90-degree position, then lower it to 45 degrees. Continue to point your toes as you slowly move that extended leg to the left just above your left knee (right foot pointed toward the left side of the room) and hold for about 15 seconds, while keeping both arms flat and straight out to your sides on the floor. Return your leg to its original position. Repeat on the opposite side. For a deeper stretch, use your opposite hand to pull to leg as far as possible across your body.

Joe Marino is a Hollywood, Calif.-based healthy lifestyle writer.