I’ve been sports mad all my life, actively playing rugby for 18 years, a regular gym goer (try to avoid the stretch and abs area), road running (when injury free) and recently taking up road cycling (just cycled from Calais to Amsterdam), all exercises which are notoriously not great for the body’s general flexibility! Like a large number of men in the same boat, rather than put the work in directly after the activity and over the following days, I tend to neglect the flexibility element of fitness and then suffer on a Sunday after a game or a long cycle.
I have always known the importance of stretching and flexibility but have always “put it off”. However, as a Freedom Leisure employee and after reading our recent blog, The Importance of Stretching and Flexibilty Based Exercise - Especially for Men, I decided now is the time to do something about it!
So with the assistance of group exercise classes such as Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance to get me started, I agreed to do this blog - to track my journey and hopefully help other men in my sitiuation to give stretching a try too.
After much putting off, I finally booked onto my first stretch based class, Body Balance by Les Mills. Body Balance is a great combination of Yoga, Pilates and Thai Chi – but essentially when it comes to adding stretching into your routine, any Yoga or Pilates class would be fine, it just so happens that my local centre offers them all, so I opted for this class as my first.
Upon arriving to class I grabbed my mat and took off my shoes and socks, and possibly rather foolishly, positioned myself behind a gentlemen that can only be described as Mr Elastic (see my worried reaction to the left).
Thinking that a confession to the instructor that “this is my first time” was in order, I spoke to Nicole (group exercise instructor, Uckfield Leisure Centre).
She was absolutely brilliant and actually quite excited to have a newbie in the class, she said that it’s always good to flag to the instructor if you’re new, so they can keep an eye on you.
I definitley think that the worry of what others think of you can be a bit of a blocker when you first start, but the reality is, no one cares - I realised this immediately as my entire group was really welcoming.
So, as the warm up kicked and my inflexibility became instantly apparent!
I kept an eager eye on Nicole to make sure I wasn’t completely out of time with the movements (it’s worth noting that Body Balance can be quite dynamic and flowing, unlike some other Yoga and Pilates classes), but Nicole was great, offering advice and technique corrections, and generally making sure that I was happy. Yoga style exercise is as easy or as hard as you make it, accessible to all abilities. I cannot deny though, it was more of a work out than I’d expected!
As a keen indoor cyclist I am used to the sweat flowing but I really wasn’t expecting this to be the case in Body Balance! I was wrong! Thinking that my core strength wasn’t in too bad a shape, I opted for the more advanced movements, again, what makes this class so good for all levels are different options, to make the movements harder or easier as you require … after the first core track, I soon switched to slightly easier options!
A posture/stretch from my first class which sticks in my mind is the Warrior Pose (see picture). What may look like quite a simple posture was certainly quite challenging and I was surprised that this simple stance seemed to work my entire body! I now know it strengthens your shoulders, arms, legs, ankles and back. While opening out the hips, chest and lungs. Just to add to the intensity; it improves focus, balance and stability, while stretching out your arms, legs, shoulders, neck, belly, groins and ankles! Phew!
I came out of the class feeling like I’d had a good work out and that my muscles did feel longer, I certainly walked taller for the rest of the day
I guess I never realised that by lifting weights and cycling I was contracting the muscles but then not doing anything to stretch them out again, I will certainly be incorpoarting frequent stretching into my fitness routine from now on. I found Body Balance to be a really fantastic introduction to a stretching group exercise session and I can’t wait for another session!
The second class of my intro into stretching was another Les Mills Body Balance class; I’d wanted to try a different class such as Fitness Yoga or Pilates this week but this session with Jane at Hailsham Leisure Centre fitted into my schedule this week.
So, a new environment and slightly different structure to the class, which was only 45 minutes but no less challenging! We focussed more on balance and strength (especially leg strength). Once again, I was greeted with a warm and supportive welcome as I explained it was only my second yoga-type class ever!
As the warm up kicked in, I recognised similar movements from my first session, which was nice as it made me feel a bit like I knew roughly what I was doing! However, I was soon taken out of my comfort zone again and shown my lack of multi taking skills, when we had to combine movements into a small routine, this really raised the heat!
Once fully warmed-up, Jane talked us through the plan for the main session, to include a focus on leg strength.
Having done a fair bit of leg work in the gym in the past, I felt confident in my ability with the exercises coming – how wrong I was!
The postures really focused on specific muscle groups with a lot of balance work (balance is another area which I haven’t quite mastered yet!) If I thought that I ticked the leg strength box, I was wrong and these movements really pushed me to my limits, in a good way!
As a rugby player, cyclist and gym users it again became obvious that I clearly do a lot of work which builds my muscles - without ever doing anything to elongate and stretch them out again! I now know just how tight my hamstrings and glutes are! My least favourite pose from today's class was Pigeon Pose (see me attempting it), I really found it hard to stretch through! but this just shows me how much I need to do it!
This was another really enjoyable class and once again I was pushed to, and over my limits.
I have given myself some homework this week – to do some stretches for the glutes as it seems that over the years mine have turned to stone!
I plan to try something new next week… I’m thinking Pilates, so do check back to see how I get on!
I managed to find a new class for my third session and it is one that I have been looking forward to trying… Pilates.
I have never really known exactly what Pilates is so was very keen to give it a go as part of this drive to incorporate stretching into my weekly routine.
When booking at Hailsham Leisure Centre, I explained that this would be my first Pilates session and asked if this would be an issue? The reception team informed me that there was a rehab Pilates class that may be a good start… perfect!
Once set up with my mat (towards the back to avoid embarrassment), Andrea the instructor introduced herself. As I was a newbie she went through a verbal health and injury check with me, just to get an understanding of any movements that she thought should be avoided for me.
Like the previous Bodybalance classes, we started with a thorough warm up, breaking down movements that formed the basis for the rest of the session. Unlike Bodybalnce, we were all presented with equipment (see picture) which would be incorporated into the session, some to expand the exercises and some to help support the body.
Andrea kept an eye on me and provided feedback throughout the session which I found really reassuring, as once again Pilates was another step outside my comfort zone!
Even though Pilates didn’t quite give me the “workout feel” of my previous two sessions – with beads of sweat pouring down my face, nor did it push my flexibility to the limit! It was a completely different workout and really helped focus on engaging muscle often forgotten during a gym session!
I have learnt that this is the beauty of these stretching based exercise practices – they can be as hard or as easy as you decide to make them, this session was obviously a rehab session and therefore not too demanding on the body, but I am under no illusion form what I hear, that Pilates can be hard-core!
Onto session 4, yoga I think……
So after a bit of a break (I had a week’s holiday in Cyprus, and while I had good intentions to try and track down a local yoga session, it didn’t happen!) I undertake my fourth and final session of this series; Getting into Yoga – Because it’s important to stretch
This week I found a Yoga class near to where I live, which is sometimes run outside in the park in warmer weather.
It certainly made it a different experience – doing it outside of a studio! This session focused more on the breathing and relaxation side of Yoga, which when I first decided to try stretching for this blog, I don’t think I would have entertained. I really think it is the notion of all the breathing, and “hippy” side of things which puts a lot of men off trying Yoga, but once you understand that a lot of the moves are simply performed in line with the breath (meaning your body eases into positions better) – it’s not so scary!
It was a pleasant class – but for me, I definitely prefer the more fitness-led stretching classes, for me the benefits definitely come from the more intense stretching and flexibility side of things.
Even though this was the first "proper" Yoga class I’ve tried in this series (with previous session being Pilates or Body Balance), the moves did not feel alien at all.
I recognised a lot of them and I felt more comfortable doing them too, which is nice after only four sessions, and made it apparent that whether you try Yoga, Pilates or another form of stretching based exercise – a lot of the principles are the same.
The purpose of this journey and resulting blog was to investigate the benefits of stretching for people like me, guys who tend to omit it from their routine, and I have actually ended up experiencing first-hand how important it is to keep stretching!
As I mentioned above I had a week away and even in such a short period of time, I cannot believe how tight my muscles had got. I struggled with even the basic postures and felt tighter than I did on my first week.
In this session I revisited the Warrior pose, which I first experienced in session two. In this session we moved from Warrior to Triangle which was tricky for me because it involved balance as well as core strength, but I enjoyed doing it – Warrior just feels really strong (maybe cos of its name?!) and I know from doing it before it helps to stretch a ton of different muscles.
Another posture that has been in all four sessions has been the Cobra, this has been one of my favourites – it feels really nice to lengthen the spine in this way.
For the purpose of this blog this is my last session but I am certain I will continue on this journey, and while I won’t ever become a hard-core Yogi with my legs behind my head (like Mr Elastic in my first session!) I will ensure that I regularly incorporate a stretching class into my weekly workout routine going forward, as well as taking some of the key stretches, such as Cobra, with me into the gym, and for after rugby matches and bike rides, because it is important to stretch.
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