Now that the holiday gluttany has ended, many of you have begun to work out at a gym like or ; or with the assistance of videos you acquired during the holidays. But as you enter (or re-enter) the gym life, a key to success that many people overlook is stretching. One thing I have discovered about people who workout is that they may know a lot about their form of exercise but do not know how to care for their bodies in an optimal way to reduce pain and heal injuries.
As a personal trainer and massage therapist, I have had a number of clients who have received cortisone shots or who were looking to surgery for pain relief. However, when I introduced these clients to stretches that target their painful areas, they were amazed at the relief they found. And, since stretching is free and has no negative side effects, it should always be your first attempt at relief, not a last resort.
I thought a brief self-help article on some basic (and not so basic) leg stretches would be a help. Why does stretching work? In short, it elongates the muscle fibers, allowing blood to circulate and carry out toxins that have accumulated within and around them.
The knee is a joint where many muscles converge from many directions. So every person who exercises, and anyone who experiences knee pain, should perform a few key stretches every day. Every stretch should be held a minimum of 20 seconds, and should be gently uncomfortable—not painful. The longer you hold the stretch, the more you will feel the muscles relax and you'll be able to increase your range of motion both in the moment and over times.
Try each of these stretches and see which ones bring your particular pain spots some relief. You may be surprised to discover just where your pain is originating from, even if it shows up in your knee.
The first stretch focuses on your quadriceps—the large muscle group on the front of your thigh. Follow along with the attached photos.
- Picture #1: Kneel down onto the ground. Gently lower your rump towards your heels. When you begin to feel a gentle stretch, hold that position. If needed, you may hold a chair for support.
- Picture #2: Some people can sit all the way back on their heels and still not feel a stretch. If this is you, place one foot in front of you and lay your back to the ground with the other leg bent behind you. If you find your back is arched, gently press the base of your spine towards the ground until you feel a good stretch.
This next stretch focuses on your IT band and muscles that wrap around from your hip to your knee. It is one of my favorite stretches because it is SO effective and yet so few people know it. I have used this stretch with athletes to senior citizens. And, if you suffer from sciatica, this can be even more effective than cortisone shots!
- Picture #3: Sit with a straight spine to your chair. Cross your legs "like a male" with one foot placed on top of your opposite knee. Play with the position. You may need assistance if you are extremely tight or suffering from sciatica.
- If this position is easy for you, increase the stretch by gently pushing down on your knee and lifting up the heel which is on the ground. Then, with a very straight spine, start to bend forward from your hips. Note: If you round your spine you will lose the stretch. Make sure your spine remains straight and any bending you do comes from your hips.
This third stretch focuses on the interior muscles of the thigh. They wrap from the front of the knee up the inner thigh. Some attach in front, some in back. I have discovered that this is actually the muscle group that gives my own left knee the most problems. I have no idea why they are an issue, but this lunge stretch brings great relief.
- Picture #4: Ground your left leg. Step out as wide as you can with your right leg. Point your right knee to the right, and bend your right leg, keeping your left leg straight. Place your hands on your right leg or a chair for balance. Lunge. Increase range until you feel a gentle pull. Switch sides.
Finally the hamstrings. These are the muscles running down the back of your leg. You may do this stretch standing or sitting on the floor.
- Picture #5: With straight legs—reach for your toes. The end.
Finally, another quadriceps stretch that really gets at your hip flexors as well.
- Picture #6: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Take a giant step forward with your right leg. Lean on your thigh for support if needed. Lunge forward as far as possible, keeping back leg straight.
- Picture #7: Now straighten your spine and bring your torso back up to a straight up and down position. You should feel a pull where your muscles attach into the hip and groin area.
I cannot emphasize enough just how effective stretching can be. My neighbor in Roxborough is in her late 60s and had been complaining of severe sciatica. One day I helped her to do the chair sitting stretch (picture #3), and she was elated at how it took the edge off. She continued practicing the stretch for days afterwards and said the pain was less and less every day because of the stretching.
Yoga is far more than just stretching, however, because it includes stretching, it is an excellent practice to add to your workout schedule. Pilates is also a highly effective workout with a lot of stretching built in.
So, if you're a member of a local workout spots like , , or , check out their class schedule for yoga and pilates options to add into your weekly regime.
Or, you may choose to, check out a local spot like , , or . The more you learn from experts, the more you can implement in your own daily life... which is really what we need to do in order to decrease our pain levels.
Carol Haslam has a holistic personal counseling practice in Roxborough. Information in this column is not to replace consulting your doctor.