The Cat-Cow Secret

Contributor: Kari Saflen
Photographer: Sarah Shreves
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Flowing through yet another cat-cow warm up on the yoga mat may not exactly seem like hard work, but stretches that warm up multiple muscle groups are a vital and important part of any fitness routine.

The benefits of stretching regularly are vast: improved flexibility in muscles and joints, a greater range of motion, improved circulation, and decreased risk of injury. A secondary benefit of stretching is the well known calming effect it can have on both the mind and body.  A calm mind can bring better sleep, greater productivity, and an overall sense of well-being.

Saffron & Sage Cat Cow Pose

But the benefits listed above don’t necessarily come by doing the same stretch-and-hold routine from elementary school gym class. There’s a modern take on stretching, called dynamic stretching—not to be confused with the static toe touches of our formative years. It’s important to note the difference between the two types of stretching because a static style of stretching (holding a muscle in an extended position for a period of time) has been found to have a negative impact on muscle strength without a significant benefit of injury reduction. A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before exercise could actually decrease performance. While it is still unclear as to exactly why this is, it seems that the loose (stretched) muscles are less able to store energy needed for quick bursts of exercise.

So what’s a girl to do? More cat cows!

Experts now recommend dynamic stretching before exercise over static stretching. Dynamic stretching moves a muscle group through its full range of motion. For example, in the cat-cow move, the spine moves from a flexed or rounded position (cat) to an extended and lengthened position (cow) using the large muscle groups of the abdominals and the back. The continuous movement of dynamic stretching adds blood flow to muscles contracting them both eccentrically  and concentrically. This fluid movement and style of stretching prepares the muscles and connective tissue for further work without over loosening.

Try these 5 dynamic stretches before a more intensive workout—or on their own—to move your body and stretch your muscles, tendons and connective tissues.

Kneeling lunges forward back

High knees & bum kicks

Hip circles (aka the hoola-hoop)

Flowing from down dog to up dog in yoga

Arm circles