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If there's one universal truth about stretching, it's that we all should do it and few of us actually do. "Yet with each passing decade, starting in the '30s, the tendons and ligaments that connect muscle to bone become drier, making you more prone to injury," said Pamela Peeke, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and author of "Body for Life for Women." Plus, as we age, our joints have less fluid in them to keep things moving smoothly. "The best way to keep everything greased up is to incorporate flexibility work into your routine," Peeke said. Doing yoga consistently, or just old-fashioned stretching, will do the trick, she said.
Wondering if you've been neglecting one of the pillars of fitness? Below is a test designed to assess hamstring flexibility, courtesy of Jessica Matthews, M.S., the certification director for the American Council on Exercise. She recommends this particular assessment because hamstrings are notoriously tight. If you pass, keep doing what you're doing. If not, follow Matthews' prescription for improving hamstring flexibility. Here's why: "Tight [and weak] hamstrings can hinder performance, lead to back pain and postural problems, and make you susceptible to muscle tears," Matthews said.
The test: Passive straight-leg assessment (PSL)
Equipment needed: Exercise mat
How to do it: After a five-minute warm-up of brisk walking or cycling, lie on your back with the legs extended and your low back flat on the mat.
1. Have a partner place one hand under the calf of your right leg and the other hand under your lower back. Place your hand on the top of your left thigh to restrain the leg from moving or rising during the test.
2. Point the toes of both feet away from the body to avoid movement limitations and discomfort.
3. Have your partner slowly raise your right leg, keeping your knee loosely extended throughout the movement (avoid locking the knee).
4. Throughout the movement, ensure that your low back and sacrum remain flat against your partner's hand and keep your left leg extended along the floor (bending the knee of the left leg allows for more movement in the pelvis which can falsely increase the evaluation of hamstring length).
5. Have your partner determine the degree of movement before your back shows signs of lifting off of his or her hand, or before the left leg begins to lift off of the mat. Note that the mat represents zero degrees and when the lifted leg is perpendicular to the mat, the angle represents 90 degrees.
6. Have your partner or trainer record the result and then repeat on the opposite leg.
7. Re-assessment. Over the course of the next four weeks, focus on these three elements to improve hamstring flexibility (ideally, and for overall flexibility, you will also include stretches that improve flexibility in your shoulders, back, and hips).
• Before a workout, incorporate dynamic warm-up exercises at the beginning of your workouts, including exercises such as "Frankensteins".
• During your workouts, include corrective strength exercises such as lunges and squats in which during the lowering phase of each exercise the hamstrings are required to contract eccentrically.
• After your workouts, integrate static hamstring stretches at the end of your workouts, such as supine hamstring stretch and modified hurdlers stretch to increase range of motion and lengthen hamstrings.