Life and sports require strength and flexibility: lifting, reaching, turning and bending move you through your day and keep you in the game. Bending exercises improve flexibility by stretching and opening tight areas of the body and by leveraging body weight to strengthen muscles and joints. Use bending exercises in your fitness routine, but select them with care to experience their benefits and avoid injury.
Exercise should first improve your ability to manage your daily life. Functional flexibility is a fitness level that allows you to climb stairs, tie your shoes, pick up a bag of groceries, reach the top shelf, get in and out of a car and sprint for the bus. Bending exercises stretch and strengthen muscles used in activities of daily life, or ADL. A University of Wisconsin La Crosse Exercise and Health Program study tested exercises that imitated the bending and reaching moves typical of ADL and found agility, dynamic balance and shoulder flexibility increased significantly in test subjects. A fitness workout based on the study includes exercises like a chair step in which you bend forward from the hips to stretch hamstrings and a penny pick-up that uses a lunge or squat with bent knees and a forward bend.
Backbends aren't just for teenage gymnasts. They open the upper chest and the muscles of the front body, compress and relieve stretched back muscles, and help to oxygenate and flush wastes from the muscles. After hunching over a computer or a desk all day, feel the expansion and rush of energy when you bend backward to counter your habitual slump. "Yoga Journal" says you don't have to bend yourself into pretzel pose to get a good backbend. In fact, you should ease into backbends, using props to support yourself in deep stretches and using your breath to create a symmetrical, shallow arch in your back that takes the pressure off your lower back. Lift and arch on inhalation and contract the abs on exhalation to safely practice poses like Matsyasana -- Fish Pose, and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana -- Bridge Pose.
Forward bends traditionally have been used to stretch hamstrings and spine. Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog, and Balasana, or Child's pose are two common yoga poses used for stretching and relaxing in forward bend. Runners and dancers bend forward over extended legs to loosen tight hamstrings. Picking up toddlers provides repetitive forward bend exercise. But not all fitness buffs can safely use forward bends. MayoClinic.com cautions anyone with osteoporosis to avoid putting pressure on the spine with forward-bending exercise. If you have back problems, a hamstring or spine injury, or any other medical condition that might make forward bends risky, consult your doctor or trainer.
Side bends won't melt away your muffin top -- you'll have to tackle love handles with diet and aerobic exercise. But working your oblique muscles will make it easier to turn, twist and bend your torso to the side and stabilize your spine. The American Council on Exercise recommends standing triangle straddle bends to stretch and tone obliques. To bend to the right, stand with feet apart more than hip width. Point left foot forward, right foot to the right, engage the abs and keep your back straight. Extend your left hand to the ceiling as the right hand rests on your outer thigh and bend to the right, sliding the right hand down the leg, reaching up and over with your left arm. Switch positions for a left-side bend.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .