If you ever happen to spy on me as I work out, you’ll undoubtedly see me gasping to catch my breath whenever I finish a strength training set. Once I hit my arbitrary reps quota, all I can think about doing is dropping my weights or collapsing onto the mat so that I can mentally and physically prepare for the next round.
Now, I know better: that break time should really be spent stretching. “It’s using time while you’re resting to get energy for your next exercise—you might as well be stretching, because you’re every second of your time in a smart way,” says Sarah James, a certified Pilates instructor and founder of Pilates by Sarah James. I trained with her the other day, and in between hardcore ab exercises, she had me do various stretches before we went into our next set—and it felt really good. James, who used to be a dancer, notes this is something that ballerinas do constantly. “You’re still stretching while watching the teacher give you a new combo—you never take a break from doing something productive, and the most beneficial thing you can do is stretch,” she says.
Not only is this a sneaky and time-effective way to get your stretches in (especially if you’re like me, and don’t exactly prioritize it as a part of your routine), but doing them mid-workout when you’re already warmed up helps increase flexibility.
In our sweat sesh, James had us hold runner’s lunges after doing various plank exercises. “When you extend your legs out straight and do abs work, you’re working your hip flexors a lot—and when they get too tight, you can have back pain,” she says. Then, in the middle of our lower body and glutes work (donkey kicks galore), we did variations of hamstrings stretches that involved reaching down to our toes. “It’s good to stretch your hamstrings when doing butt and lower body work to keep your back healthy and prevent tightness.” A similar idea would be to open up your shoulder between reps of upper body exercises.”You just want to keep your body flexible and in good health,” says James, who has all of her Pilates clients stretch when they need a workout break (you’re still catching your breath as you stretch, after all). Just think about the muscles you’re targeting, and combat where the tightness would happen preemptively… and voila: more flexibility and less soreness.
Fun fact: Big toe flexibility is where your stretching potential counts the most (surprising, I know). And here’s what to know about straddle flexibility, which elongates your spine *and* opens up those always-tight hip flexors.
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