The power of the stretch

Olympic athletes all need a good warm-up routine. But flexing your muscles makes for a great workout in its own right

I'm not averse to stretching. In the mornings, I often twin a gigantic yawn with an arm-stretch and feel all the better for it. But I associate stretching with preparing for other, more strenuous, exercise (to which I am allergic); or with men in the 1950s wearing white vests doing morning star-jumps.

But with all these Olympians running around making the athletically challenged such as I feel bad about the flabbiness of our arms and lack of muscular definition, I decide to get over my aversion and to try adding some regular exercise to my life – and stretching doesn't sound too hard.

I turn for help to Craig Ramsay, a former Broadway dancer and trained contortionist with muscles so bulging he appears semi-inflated. His book, Anatomy of Stretching, is a manual for novice stretchers such as I and yoga bunnies alike. Talking us through knee bends, forward extensions and twists, it is designed to combat the many anti-exercise excuses (mine read: I don't have time/it's too expensive/how embarrassing!) by dividing stretching routines into bite-sized, life-appropriate chunks.

"As a fitness expert I keep being asked: how should I be stretching? When should I be stretching? How much stretching should I do? And hearing people say they don't stretch enough," Los Angeles-based Ramsay, 35, tells me over the phone.

"So many people are too intimidated to even start a fitness programme. Stretching helps you get to know your body. To identify what feels good, what doesn't, and to really connect the mind, body and spirit."

Ramsay suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and tells me his parents helped him to use exercise to regulate his condition. His goal is to pass on this knowledge, to convince the exercise-averse that there are ways to tone up and feel better in your own home, without the pressures and expense of a group session.

As a dancer he has all the grace and physical co-ordination I lack, but his techniques have nevertheless been developed for people like me who are not natural movers. For this he drew on his experience as a personal trainer on the frighteningly titled American fitness television show Thintervention.

"We need to learn from our animals," Ramsay says. "In the modern world we've lost touch with ourselves, we're so wrapped up in iPhones and computers. Copy your dog: wake up, stretch and start the day."

I start with the chapter called Office Stretches. Sitting at my desk (The Independent is alarmingly open-plan) I try some seated twists and a forward-bend hip-shift (which makes it look as if I've lost something under my chair), but draw the line at a supported hamstring shift (for which I would have had to stand up and lunge at the chair with one leg). After five minutes of this I look around the office smugly, but nobody seems to have noticed my enthusiastic flexing.

Having spent the afternoon feeling extra productive and rather pleased with myself for managing to exercise and work at the same time, I take Anatomy of Stretching home with me. After slumping on the sofa for an hour it is 9pm before I don my leggings and unfurl an exercise mat on my living-room floor.

In my strictest pedantic mode I examine the book for confusing language that might result in a groin strain and/or leg tangles. There are occasional Americanisms (though Ramsay is actually Canadian) but the instructions are otherwise clear and are coupled with detailed anatomical diagrams so you can see the changing shapes of the big, meaty wads of muscle as you stretch them.

Reading about the importance of warming up (which I'd mistakenly taken stretching for) I discover I'm required to leap about my living room, running on the spot at speed, shaking out my fingers and toes in true jazz-hands style (Ramsay was on Broadway, after all), which I do, as my bemused boyfriend tries to ignore me in our one-room living space.

Anyone who's ever done yoga will be well at home with Ramsay's selection of beginners' poses. I work my way through the assisted foot stretches with ease and only a little ticklishness. Cradling my own leg to my chest is, however, completely beyond me. As is the forward frog straddle, which seems to require an extra pair of knees on my thighs.

Most enjoyable is the happy-baby stretch, for which I lie on my back with bent legs in the air and pull my feet down towards my elbows. It's so relaxing I have to suppress the desire to gurgle.

Face stretching turns out to be rather painful. As instructed, I place my palms on both temples, grasp a handful of hair on either side of my head and then pull. The book says to do this both "gently" and "slightly" but I seem to miss this crucial point and end up liberating handfuls of hair.

Eye stretching is less hazardous. It demands rotating my eyeballs slowly in circles, pausing at points between shifting my focus of vision. Ever the multitasker, I attempt this at the same time as the lion stretch, which is an open-mouthed roar with your tongue sticking out. I end up resembling a redder version of the little girl from The Exorcist.

My biggest mistake – and the most obvious pitfall of exercising without a professional nearby – is that I become overly cocky and turn too early to the chapter marked Extreme Challenge.

Heedless of Ramsay's warning not to tackle these without having followed the basics for at least a month, I attempt a crab-like forward lunge and end up with my right leg wedged painfully over my shoulder. Unable to complete the stretch, I collapse sideways and end up face-down on the carpet. The last time this happened was during a particularly competitive game of Twister.

Taking stretching, which most people do before exercise, and turning it into the main exercise event, is clever if not exactly groundbreaking. Ramsay's programme takes some of the best things from yoga and Pilates and dresses them up in an accessible, easy-to-complete package that is free of meditation, incense and scary exercise machines.

Will I keep following it? I'm full of good intentions to do so, yes. But it'll probably last for about as long as the Olympics keeps making me feel bad. The office stretches stand a chance of greater longevity (so long as nobody notices, that is). And face stretches are definitely off the agenda.

'Anatomy of Stretching' by Craig Ramsay is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99, www.craigramsay.com

Warming up: simple stretches

As well as benefiting us in its own right, stretching has a key role when completing any sort of exercise or training. Olympic athletes are no different. These athletes will be training daily and in doing so putting their bodies through huge amounts of stress, whether running, rowing or swimming. To help to aid their bodies through this pressure they do copious amounts of stretching.

Stretching the muscles before doing exercise allows the body to warm up before any strenuous activity and avoid injury. It also increases the heart rate to allow the optimum performance.

Athletes will start their training by completing slow and light stretches and progressively increase the intensity of the stretches.

British gymnast Louis Smith (top right) does 20 minutes of static and dynamic stretches. This is followed by 40 minutes more of strength and conditioning on the apparatus.

Athlete Jenny Meadows (bottom) starts with slow, low-intensity stretches, gradually increasing the intensity over half an hour of preparation. As athletes complete their stretching this allows their minds to become fully prepared for what their bodies are about to endure. "A warm-up helps you feel energised and focus on your training," Meadows says.

Leanne Parker

ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before