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Mind the Ps of Stretching, Starting With Positioning

September 09, 2002|KAREN VOIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What goes through your mind when you watch stretches by people who are a little more flexible than you at the gym or on the jogging path? Do you get inspired? Or do you simply want to give up?

Even though comparing our own performances with that of others is human nature, it's important to realize that this can lower our confidence level, undermining our potential for progress.

But proper stretching is a skill we all can learn. Sure, there will always be those naturally flexible people who never have to work at it. But for those who walk around all day with stiff lower backs, tight hamstrings and not-so-limber hips, stretching may be what they need the most but do the least.

To become good at stretching, remember to practice the three Ps: positioning, patience and persistence.

First, you'll need to learn how to position your body so that the stretches are safe and effective.

The next step is to teach your mind and muscles to relax. For those of us with type-A personalities, this might be the hardest part because we have to develop patience. Unfortunately, our bodies won't ever react as quickly as instant messages; it takes time for our muscles to release tension.

Finally, you must be persistent. If you can stick with it without getting discouraged or bored, you'll have a better chance of becoming more flexible. Doing a few stretches now and then doesn't do much good. Our bodies respond much better to a regular routine.

Here are a couple of great stretches for the backs of your legs that you probably won't see many other people doing. Introduce yourself to these moves by doing the standing position first; then, as you get comfortable with it, progress to the more advanced, seated version.

Standing Forward Bend

Stand next to a sturdy surface and place your left hand on it for balance while resting your right hand on your right hip. Cross your right leg in front of your left leg so your right heel is next to your left little toe. Keep both knees straight and point your toes forward.

Inhale, lifting your chest and pulling your abdominals in toward your spine. On the exhale, hinge forward at the hips. Make sure that your back and knees stay straight.

Once your body forms a 90-degree angle, begin to slowly shift your weight forward toward your toes. Move your hips directly above your ankles. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds and breathe comfortably as you focus on releasing tension in the backs of your hips, thighs and calves.

Make sure your back does not round forward. If you feel any discomfort, ease up on the forward bend. When you are ready to come out of the stretch, lift yourself upright, uncross your legs and repeat with the left leg crossed in front.

Seated Forward Bend

Sit on a mat or a soft surface with your left leg extended in front of you. Bend your right knee and place it over your left leg. Bring your right foot close to your left hip with your right knee over your left knee.

Hold both ends of a towel, belt or stretch band as you wrap it around the ball of your left foot. Inhale as you sit tall and move your shoulders away from your ears. Feel your buttocks and thighs sinking into the ground as you lift up from the base of your spine to create a straight back.

On the exhale, hinge forward at the hips, bringing your chest toward your feet. If you find yourself rounding your back, ease up and don't bend so far forward.

Stay in this stretch for 15 to 30 seconds as you breathe and release tension in your lower back, your hips and the back of your straight leg. Relax your jaw and shoulders. When you are ready to come out of this position, release the band and slowly walk yourself up with your hands.

Repeat by crossing the other leg on top and bending forward.

The beauty of these moves is that you are stretching a variety of muscles at the same time. Gravity assists you as you bend forward, so you get a deeper stretch without having to bounce or jerk your way into position.

Flexibility differs from day to day, so always work at a level that feels right for you. If you don't get caught up in expectations and can resist the temptation to compare yourself with other people, you'll reap the rewards of having a more limber and supple body.

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Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest videos are "Pure & Simple Stretch" and "Pilates: Abdominals & Back." She can be reached at kvoightla@aol.com.

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