Listen up, ladies, because it’s confession time, and as you may know, this is not my gender’s forte. So let’s get this over with: Although we are bigger, stronger and faster than you are, we must acknowledge that when it comes to flexibility, most of us are pretty much outclassed. We aren’t built like you, and we don’t bend like you do.
Yet we find ourselves next to you in yoga and Pilates classes and, well, we don’t like struggling to even sit back on our heels while you twist yourselves into all kinds of positions without much effort. We get discouraged, and sometimes we don’t come back.
Which is one of the reasons that former professional dancer Alvaro Maldonado offers Stretching and Alignment for Men, a class designed to spare our egos and help fix all the stupid things we do to our bodies at work and in the gym.
“Men just get frustrated with the [traditional stretching] exercises, because most of them cannot do it,” the 27-year-old Maldonado told me recently before his class at Fit, in Washington. “A woman is in full split next to you, and you cannot touch your toes.”
I’m the perfect subject for Maldonado’s approach. I’ve never taken a stretching, Pilates or yoga class (except for the time my colleague, Vicky Hallett, ambushed me with a flying yoga lesson that haunts me even now). I’m 53, overweight and my job requires me to slump over a computer about 10 hours a day. When I find the time to exercise, I hit the treadmill or run outdoors, using the same muscles every time. And I’ve always been inflexible (my wife would say “pigheaded,” but that’s a different column). Even as a kid, I couldn’t touch my toes. It runs on the male side of my family.
If you think this doesn’t matter, you’re wrong, especially if you’re my age. If you hope to retain range of motion when you’re older, the time to start stretching is now, or in my case 20 or 30 years ago. Yes, you can get some of it back when you’re not so busy working or raising a family, but you’ll set yourself up for a more successful old age if you develop these habits over a lifetime.
There were four of us in Fit’s tiny gym for Maldonado’s class that night: two younger guys who were pretty limber and another older guy in roughly the same shape as I. We rolled out yoga mats and took off our shoes, and Maldonado began to take us through a rigorous neck-to-toe stretching regimen.
Until you try this, you don’t realize how many muscles and joints you neglect and abuse in daily life. The simple act of slowly rotating my foot at the ankle, first clockwise then counter-clockwise, felt new and invigorating. When we got to the hip flexors, lower back and glutes, it became clear that my office chair, ergonomically correct as it may be, is simply the enemy. All those muscles have become weak and tight from disuse, from hour upon hour of sitting, often with poor posture. Soon I was sweating and straining to hold the poses Maldonado demonstrated. And yet it felt good at the same time.
(The next day, not so much. The program left me a bit sore, from my calves to my middle back, as muscles I hadn’t used in years protested. A couple of Tylenol eased the pain.)
It took only a few minutes to see that my hamstrings were way too tight for some of the most basic stretches, such as locking my fingers beneath one foot as I straightened my leg. Maldonado provided belts that gave me and the other older fellow a bit more reach. In other positions, we put foam blocks beneath our hands while the other guys were able to keep their hands and feet on the mats.
Every step of the way, Maldonado emphasized lengthening muscles, keeping a tight core, maintaining proper skeletal alignment and breathing. None of us had the thickened “vanity muscles” of a weight room junkie, but Maldonado says he takes care to stretch biceps, pectorals and deltoids because so many guys have pumped up.
“What happens when you neglect a large muscle a lot is . . . you have a large imbalance,” he said. Imbalance is bad. Overemphasizing some muscles can cause postural problems.
The program ended with a short cool-down as we slowly relaxed the muscles we had taxed so thoroughly. And that felt best of all.