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.
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