One of the reasons people take up yoga is to get more flexibility. Men are especially known as being less flexible on the mats than their female counterparts. During the summer months when it’s warm outside it’s easier to get a good stretch, especially in the beginning of a class. It typically doesn’t take much to get the muscles loosened up and ready to go.
But during the cold winter months, it can feel like an hour or more of warm up is needed just to get the muscles loosened up to take a class. And for those that are naturally less flexible, it can be very frustrating and potentially injurious. What can be done during this time of stress, super tension and cold? Is all hope of flexibility lost? Fear not, for there is still hope.
The key to getting a good stretch while minimizing the risk of injury is a good warm up sequence. Waking the muscles up, getting the blood flowing and getting your whole body warm are the three tips to getting the most out of stretching in the cold months. First a little on why it works, then a handy little set you can use to get yourself fired up inside and ready to go.
Why it works
During the warm months (weeks if you live in New York), the ambient heat from nature helps the body to relax. The body, muscles and connective tissues are in a pretty constant state of being warm, and as a result are more relaxed. This state of relaxation is what allows the muscles to stretch and lengthen when stretching exercises are done.
Now think to the winter months. It’s cold and the wind is slicing through every layer of clothing you have on. Most
people actively pull in towards their center during this time. This is a protective reflex buried in our bodies. What it also does is put the muscles into a constant state of tension. While tensed in this fashion, the muscles are far less likely to stretch safely as they are actively shrinking and pulling in. And that’s why injuries such as pulled muscles occur. But, take those same tense, cold muscles and warm them up first, and you create a safe state for the muscles to stretch.
How to warm up your muscles safely
- Take a few minutes to acclimate to the warmer workout environment (assuming it is warmer)
- Start *slow* and then build the intensity of the warm ups
- Stay focused on the fact that these are indeed warm ups and while some of the exercises contain a little cardio, this is not the cardio portion of your work out
- Be honest with where you are in getting warm; some days you may need a little more time to warm up adequately, treat yourself to that time
- The more body parts you warm up, the safer your work out becomes; avoid warming up just the legs or just the back in favor of time on other parts of your work out
To help get you warmed up, I’ve drawn up a list of exercises that will get the whole body warm and the blood pumping.
Warm up set
- Body tapping – tap your body, shoulders to palms (palms up) and back (palms down). Tap the around the body and finally tap down and back up the legs. This should leave you with a tingling sensation telling you that your blood is flowing now.
- Hand squeezes – make a fist as tight as possible and open as wide as possible, repeat 30 or so times
- Elbow and shoulder rolls – rotating the joints to open them up both physically and energetically
- Hip, ankle and knee rotations – same idea as the shoulders and elbows
- Squats – slow motion and holding
- Plank/push-ups – slow, steady push-ups with holding planks in between
- Jumping jacks – any variation
- Coordination drills (hand/knee and hand/foot) such as ladders or mountain climbers
A note to avoid lateral foot work drills before you are warmed up. Those put a lot of pressure on the connective tissue and muscles of the joints. If performed cold you run a greater chance of getting injured.
I know that I’m warmed up enough when I have little beads of sweat just starting to form on my forehead. Another good sign is when I check in with my shoulders and quads. When I feel those loosen and relax, I know I’m ready to start my work out safely.
This kind of a deliberate warm up isn’t always an option. The top question I get is how to get into a class safely whenthis type of intentional warm up isn’t possible. The short answer is to manage the intensity of your work out. If you’ve not had the time to warm up before a class, cut the intensity of the work out down until you are warmed up. You can still do the exercises, but instead of going full bore, you can lessen your effort or limit your range of motion until you feel you are warmed up and ready to go.
In the end, it’s about listening to your body. It will tell you when you are and aren’t ready for something. Everyone is different and every day is different. Some days you may need to just think about getting to your work out and you are set to go, no more warm up needed. Other days maybe the warm up is all you ever get through. There’s nothing wrong with either of those extremes or anything in between. Push your limits, challenge yourself, but do it safely so you are able to stay healthy and don’t have to recover from injuries.