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,

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

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Technical Design Manager

    £40000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

    CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

    £15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Mechanical Design Engineer

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

    Year 5/6 Teacher

    £21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice