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Large Muscle Stretch Guide: 6 Great Exercises for Improved Training
by Marty Hull

Why Stretch?
Stretching a muscle causes the fibers in the muscle to lengthen. Longer muscle fibers generate more contraction force than shorter fibers. During exercise, muscles produce lactate. Lactate causes the muscle fibers to shorten. This reduces contraction force. This is what we feel as fatigue develops and our muscles begin to "tighten up." If you begin the exercise with longer, well-stretched muscle fibers, you will be able to generate greater contraction forces for longer as lactate builds up. You will be able to exercise more aggressively for longer.

The following stretches for the upper leg, hip and lower torso may seem to help in only subtle ways. But as a swimmer, these six stretches will ease your flip turns and breaststroke kick recovery, and improve most of your kicking movements because your legs will move to better kicking positions with less effort.

Because these muscles are some of the largest in our bodies, they require higher forces to be stretched effectively. One of the easiest ways to stretch large muscles is to use the weight of your own body. To do this safely it is important to provide support with your hands so the weight of your body does not create excessive stretching force.

1. Hamstrings
The toe-touch stretch. A wonderful degree of flexibility should be your goal. How do you get there? Over-aggressive stretching may cause pain. By stretching both legs at the same time, you may experience significant pain before you get to stretching forces which are great enough to effectively stretch the muscles. Instead, by stretching one leg at a time you will be able to concentrate more force on one leg before your pain threshold is exceeded. Lace one leg back and one leg forward. When you bend forward, the stretching force will be concentrated on the forward leg. To stretch, bend forward slowly, applying force very gradually to the leg. Allow the weight of your body to stretch the leg. Be sure to support yourself with your hands either on the ground or using a chair. Remain in this position for one to 1.5 minutes. Then stretch the other leg. Do not hold your breath when stretching. Inhale before you start the stretch and slowly exhale as you move farther into the stretch.

For increased effectiveness, while bent forward in the stretching position tighten all of the muscles of the upper leg for four to five seconds. You may need to bend a little at the knee to contract effectively. Then relax the leg. As you relax, you should be able to move farther into the stretch. Try this technique several times with each leg. This technique of contracting and relaxing helps with other stretch positions also.

2. Forward Splits
Place one leg forward and one back. Use the hands for support. Gradually lower yourself into the stretch. Continue stretching for one to 1.5 minutes. If your hands do not easily reach the ground, then place a chair on eachside. Place a hand on each chair seat for support. Gradually lower yourself into the stretch. Push yourself back up out of the stretch with your hands when finished. Do the stretch again with the other leg forward.

3. Splits
For this stretch, again use the hands for support. Place one foot out toeach side, gradually lower yourself into the stretch. Stretch for one to 1.5 minutes. If you can't place your hands on the floor, then place both hands ona chair seat and usde it for support. Use your hands to press up out of this stretch when finished.

4. Back Arch Stretch
Lie on a mat. Place your hands in a position you would use for push-ups.Slowly press your shoulders up and leave your hips on the ground. This will stretch the back. To avoid concentrating too much stretching force on thelower back, leave your stomach on the mat as you push up. This will bring the upper and middle protions of the back into the stretch.

5. Modified Lotus
Sit on a mat. Grab your feet with both hands. Pull the feet in toward your midsection while pressing outwardly on the inside of the knees with your elbows. Press out for 20 to 30 seconds, then relax. Pull the feet in a little closer, then press out again with the elbows. This stretch helps increase hip rotation.

6. Quad Stretch
Stand on one leg. Hold onto a pole for support. Grip the left foot with the left hand. To stretch, pull the foot forward with the hand. To enhance the stretch, contract the quadriceps muscle. Hold this contraction for four to five seconds. Then relax the leg and stretch again. Stretch for 30 to 40 seconds. Repeat several times. Each time you relax, try to pull the foot closer to the buttocks. Stretch both legs.

You may not have time to do each stretch aggressively each day. A very effective stretching philosophy is to divide the stretches into several groups of five or six stretches each. Pick one group and do these stretches very intensively for one week so you make progress on them. For all of the other groups, just spend enough time so you maintain the flexibility you already have. The next week, concentrate on the next group and do maintenance stretching on the others. Continue to rotate through the groups in this manner. In a few months, you will show improvement not only in the stretches, but in the pool.
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Marty Hull is a top Masters swimmer and a consultant to the Stanford University Swim Team.

Taken from SwimInfo
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