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Meet Your Muscles: A Beginner's Guide to Exercise and Stretching

This essay introduces the fundamentals of strength training and stretching, as appropriate for a beginner. Practicing these exercises will teach awareness of the body's major muscle groups while providing sufficient exercise to tone muscles and improve posture.

This essay discusses principles and positions for safety's sake. After a note to my sons, it details dumbell exercises for which the sufficient weight is either ten pounds or twenty pounds. The final chapter describes stretches for each major muscle group.

Also see my list of animal walks. They are a great addition to a dumbbell routine.

To do these exercises and stretches, you will need a weight bench, a few dumbbells, and a doorway. If you do not have a weight bench, a foam roller works for most "weight bench" exerices. Note that beginners should not use an exercise ball as a weight bench.

The goal for now is merely a solid foundation. The exercises and routine described below are not actually enough for consistent strength training.

These exercises and stretches purposefully neglect the neck, hands, and feet. The musclese there are also important for good posture and quality of life. But the neck, hands, and feet are too succeptible to injury to be included in this beginner's guide to muscle awareness and strength training.

Any exercise routine is more fun with a partner. So each of the following exercises has a place to record the current weight used both by you and your partner.


Three Principles link to here link to tables of contents

A beginner's exercise routine should be "relaxed but intense". Remember these three principles:

Relax

Relax while exercising. Think about feeling the muscles targeted by the exercise, not on counting, speed, or the equipment. Do your best to keep non-targeted muscles relaxed (except for the abdominal muscles kept slightly tense to maintain proper posture, see below). Do not swing, jerk, heave, or bounce a weight.

Work Harder (Not Faster or Longer)

Do not move too fast. In each repetition take about two seconds for the "positive half" of each movement where you tense the muscle and breathe out, and then about three seconds for the "negative half" of each movement when you relax the muscle and breathe in.

Minimize resting between exercises. Do a few exercises, then do all of those again (this is called "doing two sets"). For each exercise with dumbbells do ten to twenty repetitions—if you cannot do ten then use less weight, and if you can do more than twenty use more weight.

Stretch After Exercising

Stretching does a lot for "warm" muscles but very little for rested muscles.


Three Positions link to here link to tables of contents

Basic strength training involves three positions. Practice these positions without weights until you are comfortable maintaining them with awareness of the muscles involved in proper form.

Plank Position

Plank position involves protecting the spine by keeping a straight back. It is easiest to picture as someone doing push-ups. But the legs are not actually part of this position. You can do exactly the same thing when standing or sitting.

  1. Protect your neck by keeping your scapulas relaxed, lowered, and slightly together. Lift your sternum. Look straight ahead.
  2. Protect your spinal alignment by maintaining tension in your pelvic floor, abdomen, and lower trapezius.
  3. Protect your hip alignment by letting your hips be neutral: neither "duck butt" nor "tuck butt".

If you try this while standing you should feel three things. First, imagine rotating your chest upward as if around an axle passing from shoulder to shoulder. Second, you are pulling down with your lower back and letting your head float up. Third, you are contracting your tummy and pelvic floor. This posture should relax your neck while engaging your core muscles.

Weight Bench Position

When lying on your back on the weight bench use Plank Position but add a third rule.

  1. Protect your spine by keeping your back almost flat. Keep your tushy on the bench and your feet flat on the floor. Let your back arch slighty, but not much.

Squat Position

The position for doing squats is similar to what some martial arts call "horse stance", but with feet only shoulder width apart. Just practicing this position is good exercise!

Start with Plank Position. Then adjust your feet and bend your knees.

  1. Place your feet shoulder width apart with feet parallel and facing forward.
  2. Bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your knees directly over your toes. (Correct the natural tendency for the knees to slide too far forward or too close together.)

When practicing this position you will notice the need to do something with your arms. Try holding them straight out in front of you, or straight out to the sides, or folding your arms in front of your chest.


A Note to My Sons link to here link to tables of contents

My sons, there is a saying that nothing tastes as good as feeling fit. I trust you will enjoy the truth of this saying all your lives.

Convict Conditioning book cover

However, our family has a history of loose ligaments and joint problems. Exercises that isolate muscles, and that use weights, will aggravate the joints much more than bodyweight exercises that use multiple muscle groups together. This means that strength training with weights or exercise machines is probably not a great idea for you after an initial exposure to learn to meet your muscles.

One of your great-grandfathers believed that part of his long-term health was due to his habit of each night, before bed, doing a set of traditional calisthenic exercises he learned in his youth as a Boy Scout. Your other great-grandfather was an amateur gymnast (you have seen some black-and-white photogaphs of him at his prime) who also trained with traditional calisthenic exercises.

Personally, I have found the book Convict Conditioning a great help in learning and doing some traditional calisthenic exercises. I expect that Paul Wade and his prison stories are fictional, but the book's instruction in calisthenics is solid and has been thoroughly tested by many people.

(There are actual books written about exercise by convicts that are not nearly as well-written, organized, or helpful.)


Ten Pound Exercises link to here link to tables of contents

If your only goal is sufficient exercise to tone muscles and improve posture, there is no need to stress the ligaments of your shoulders by using dumbbells heavier than ten pounds.

Crunches are also done with less weight. Increased weight causes increased bulk, and most people do not want a bulkier belly.

Deltoids

The deltiod muscle covers the top of your shoulder. At the top of your shoulder it has three separate sections that attach to your collarbone, acromion, and scapula. These merge into a single tendon connecting to your upper arm.

Anterior Deltoid

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Strengthen your anterior deltoid with the Single Dumbbell Front Raise. Sit on the end of the weight bench in Plank Position. Hold both dumbbells beside you with palms facing inward and thumbs pointing forward. Keeping your arm straight and elbow stiff, lift one dumbbell in front of you up to shoulder level. Lower that dumbbell. Repeat with the other. video

Lateral Deltoid

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Exercise your lateral deltoid with the Double Dumbbell Lateral Raise. Sit on the edge of the weight bench in Plank Position. Lean very slightly forward. Hold both dumbbells by the bench with relaxed arms and palms facing inward. Lift and lower by "flapping your wings": with straight arms raise the dumbbells almost to shoulder height while keeping the dumbbells parallel to the floor. Your elbows stay above your wrists. Minimize shrugging. Beware the natural tendance to bring the dumbbells back instead of keeping them in line with your shoulders. Lower the dumbbell. video

Posterior Deltoid

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Work on your posterior deltoid with the Double Dumbbell Bent-Over Raise. Sit on the edge of the weight bench in Plank Position. Lean forward as much as you can. Hold both dumbbells with palms facing backward. Lift and lower by "spreading your wings": with arms as straight as you can, raise the dumbbells as high as you can while keeping your palms facing behind you. Beware the natural tendance to bring the dumbbells back instead of keeping them in line with your shoulders. Lower the dumbbell. video

Pectoralis

The pectoralis muscle has two overlapping portions. The pectoralis major connects your collarbone and sternum to your upper arm. The pectoralis minor connects three of your upper ribs to your scapula.

Pectoralis Minor

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Strengthen your pectoralis minor with the Double Dumbbell Fly (which also works your pectoralis major). Lay on the weight bench in Weight Bench Position. Hold both dumbbells high, directly above the middle of your chest, with palms facing together. Lower the dumbbells out wide to chest level, bending elbows slightly. Lift the dumbbells back to the starting position. video

Triceps

The tricep muscles on the back of the arm straightens a bent elbow.

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Strengthen your tricepes with the Dumbbell Bent-Over Kickback. Stand between the side of a weight bench and a dumbbell. Hold the dumbbell at your side with palm facing inward. With the opposite knee and hand, kneel on the side of the weight bench, keeping your back as flat as possible and maintaining Plank Position. Raise your upper arm so your elbow is level with your back. Keeping that upper arm still and elbow close to your side, raise the dumbbell by straightening your elbow. Reverse the motion to lower the dumbbell. As always, move slowly and deliberately to avoid swinging the dumbbell! video

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The Dumbbell Tricep Extension works your triceps in a slightly different way, and should also be included in your routine. Stand in plank position with feet shoulder width apart. Hold a dumbbell above your head by lightly grasping the underside of its upper weight with your palms facing up. Lower it behind your head, moving only your forearms. Your elbows should remain stationary beside you head. (Once a single ten-pound dumbbell is too light, try holding two side-by-side for this exercise.) video

Warning! Moving a weight behind your head can stress the rotator cuff, especially for older people. Be cautious with the Dumbbell Tricep Extension, especially when moving from ten to twenty pounds. That should be a secondary tricep exericse that makes already-warm muscles continue to feel warm. It shouuld not be a new, big effort.

Rotator Cuff

Your rotator cuff is a set of four muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularus) that surround your shoulder joint to provide shoulder stability and strength.

Supraspinatus

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Strengthen your supraspinatus with the Single Dumbbell Incline Side Raise. Lay on the weight bench or floor on one hip, with your torso sideways and raised, supported by the underside arm. Hold one dumbbell above your top thigh with your palm facing down. Keeping your arm straight and elbow stiff, lift the dumbbell up to head height. Lower the dumbbell.

Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularus

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Exercise the other three muscles of your rotator cuff with the Single Dumbbell External and Internal Rotation. Lay on your back, either on the floor or "sideways" across the weight bench with your upper back and elbow on the bench. Hold one dumbbell on your tummy, even with your elbow. Keeping that elbow in one spot, move the dumbbell in a half-circle up over that elbow and out to the floor/bench. Then reverse the half-circle to return the dumbbell to your tummy.

Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominus is the large abdominal muscle nearest the skin. It connects your ribcage and pelvis to allow you to curl forward.

Rectus Abdominis, Upper

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Strengthen your upper rectus abdominis with the Dumbbell Pillow Crunch. Lay on your back on the floor. Put your knees up and feet flat. Hold a dumbbell by its ends, resting your head on its bar like a pillow. Crunch your abdomen to raise your shoulders off the ground. Focus on crunching your abdomen, not lifting your shoulders or head! Also focus on keeping your neck relaxed and head resting on the dumbbell (keep your chin as far from your chest as it initially is when you are relaxed). Reverse the motion to lower yourself.


Twenty Pound Exercises link to here link to tables of contents

Other muscles have stronger ligaments and require more weight for sufficient exercise to tone these muscles and improve posture. I call these "twenty pound exercises" but even more weight can be used safely. Two sets, each of twenty repetitions, with twenty pound dumbbells is a sufficient goal for developing muscle awareness, improved posture and quality of life.

Pectoralis

Pectoralis Major

The pectoralis muscle has two overlapping portions. The pectoralis major connects your collarbone and sternum to your upper arm. The pectoralis minor connects three of your upper ribs to your scapula.

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Work your pectoralis major with the Double Dumbbell Press. Lay on the weight bench in Weight Bench Position. Hold both dumbbells at chest level with palms facing forward. Lift the dumbbells upward until your elbows lock, turning them as you lift so your palms face together. Lower dumbbells, returning to the starting position. (You can also try the Double Dumbbell Variable-Grip Press, in which you turning them as you lift so your palms face together.) video

Trapezius

The trapezius muscle has three triangular parts. The upper portion connects the outside of the shoulder (acromion, scapula, and collarbone) to the neck and allows us to shrug. The middle portion connects the scapular spine to the upper spine and allows us to bring our scapulas together. The lower portion connects the scapular spine to the middle spine and allows us to bring our scapulas down.

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Exercise your upper trapezius with the Double Dumbbell Shrug. Stand in Plank Position. Hold both dumbbells at your sides with palms facing inward. Keeping your arms straight and elbows stiff, shrug your shoulders up as high as possible. Lower the dumbbells. video

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Work your middle and lower trapezius with the Double Dumbbell Bent-Over Retracting Shrug. Stand in Plank Position. Hold both dumbbells at your sides with palms facing inward. Bend forward at about a 45-degree angle, keeping your back is as flat as possible. Keeping your arms straight and elbows stiff, squeeze your shoulder blades together and then down. Gently lower the dumbbells.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi is a very large muscle that connects your upper arm to your lower spine and the top of your pelvic bone.

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Strengthen your latissimus dorsi with the Dumbbell Bent-Over Row. Stand between the side of a weight bench and a dumbbell. Hold the dumbbell at your side with palm facing inward. With the opposite knee and hand, kneel on the side of the weight bench, keeping your back as flat as possible and maintaining Plank Position. Start the exercise with a fully extended arm, dumbbell directly below the shoulder. Lift the elbow (and dumbbell) as high as possible: the dumbbell should move towards and perhaps past your hip. Reverse the motion to lower the dumbbell. video

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae muscles run along your entire spine. They stabilize and strengthen your spine, especially your lower back. The group includes the iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis muscles.

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Exercise your erector spinae with the Double Dumbbell Squat-like Deadlift. Stand in Plank Position with feet shoulder width apart (or slightly closer). Hold both dumbbells slightly in front of your thighs with palms facing your legs. Keeping your back straight, bend your knees to lower the dumbbells straight down to the floor. Your tush goes back to keep your knees above your toes. Slowly stand, reversing the motion, to raise the dumbbells.video

Warning! Straight Leg Deadlifts that do not bend the knees can stress the spine. Even if they were safe for you with only forty pounds of weight, it still makes sense to teach the safest variation for people following directions online without an exercise instructor's guidance.

Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominus is the large abdominal muscle nearest the skin. It connects your ribcage and pelvis to allow you to curl forward.

Rectus Abdominis, Lower

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Strengthen your lower rectus abdominis with the Dumbbell Leg Pushes. Lay on a weight bench in Weight Bench Position. Hold a dumbbell between your ankles. Bend your knees a 90-degree angle, so your thighs are pointing toward the ceiling and your calves are parallel to the floor. While holding a dumbbell between your ankles in this position, engage your abdominal muscles as you stretch your legs out a few inches and pull back in.

Warning! When lying on your back any leg raise motion can torque the spine. Be wary of any exercise, with or without a weight, in which you raise and lower your feet.

Obliques

The internal obliques and external obliques run along the side of your abdomen. They allow you to curl sideways.

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Exercise your obliques with the Dumbbell Side Bend. Stand in Plank Position. Hold a dumbbell in one hand with your palm facing inward. Place your opposite hand behind your head. Bend your torso to lower the dumbbell toward your knee. Reverse the motion to lift the dumbbell and contract your oblique muscles. video

Warning! Do not twist the spine when holding extra weight.

Biceps

The bicep muscle on the front of each upper arm helps you bend your elbow.

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Work your biceps with the Dumbbell Concentration Curl. Sit on the edge of the weight bench in Plank Position. Lean slightly forward so you can reach between your knees towards the floor. Hold one dumbbell at arm's length with palm facing inward. Let that elbow rest against the inside of your thigh for stability. Curl the dumbbell upwards by bending at the elbow. Lower the dumbbell. (Pay attention to how your shoulder and elbow line up vertically. If your elbow is directly under the shoulder the curl will emphasize your upper bicep. If your elbow is in front of your shoulder the curl will emphasize your lower bicep. As a beginner you want balance, so use your thigh to keep your elbow very slightly in front of your shoulder. video

Brachioradialis

The brachioradialis muscle along the side of each arm also helps you bend your elbow.

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Work your brachioradialis with the Dumbbell Hammer Curl. Sit on the edge of the weight bench in Plank Position, with your knees together. Hold one dumbbell at arm's length, beside the weight bench, with palm facing inward. Curl the dumbbell upwards until it is in front of your sternum: keeping your palm inward and ending with your thumb up. Reverse the motion to lower the dumbbell. video

Quadriceps

The quadriceps femoris is a group of four thigh muscles that straighten the knee. The rectus femoris is the largest of the group.

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Exercise your quadriceps with the Dumbbell Goblet Squat. Stand in Squat Position. Hold one dumbbell to your chest by lightly grasping the two sides of its upper weight with your palms facing up. Keep the dumbbell in place as you stand, making sure your knees remain above your feet. Reverse the motion to return to Squat Position. video

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are three muscles (the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris) in the thigh that bend the knee and straighten the hip.

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Work your hamstrings with the Dumbbell Hamstring Curl. Lay face-down in Plank Position on the weight bench or a floor. Hold one dumbbell in between your feet (with the middle of your feet, not with your ankles). Bend your knees to pull the dumbbell towards your tushy. Reverse the motion to lower the dumbbell. video

Calves

There are three calf muscles (the gastrocnemius soleus, and tibialis posterior) that work together to pull the heel up.

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Strengthen your calves with the Double Dumbbell Standing Calf Raise. Stand in Plank Position with your toes on a slight height (I use one of the long weight bench "feet", a two or three inch tall piece of wood works too) but your heels on the floor. Hold both dumbbells at your sides with palms facing inward. Keep your toes pointed straight forward. Lift your heels to stand on tip-toe. Lower yourself.


Stretches link to here link to tables of contents

Many of these stretches need to be done twice, once for each side of the body.

This list of stretches is not a complete stretching routine. It is provided to help a beginner develop muscle awareness. Additional stretches of the neck, arms, and wrists may be helpful to relax after strength training.

Deltoids

Posterior Deltoid

Stretch your posterior deltoid with the High Shoulder Extensor Stretch. Stand in Plank Position facing to a doorframe, with one shoulder in line with the doorframe. That hand grabs the doorframe high, with the elbow at ear height. Pivot at that shoulder to rotate your chest toward that elbow. Also look over that shoulder. Finally, bend your knees slightly to sink your hips (but most of the stretch is due to the rotation, not the sink.)

Lateral Deltoid

Stretch your lateral deltoid with the Low Shoulder Extensor Stretch. This is identical to the high version that focused on your posterior deltoid, but now your hand grabs the doorframe at mid-chest height.

Anterior Deltoid

Stretch your anterior deltoid with the High Shoulder Flexor Stretch. Stand in Plank Position next to a doorframe, looking past the doorway along the wall. Lower your body into a very slight lunge position by stepping forward with the foot beside the doorframe. Hold out one arm with the elbow at ear height and the forearm pointing up, so the elbow "hooks" the doorframe. Rotate your chest away from that elbow. Also look away from the doorframe. Finally, lean slightly away from the elbow (but most of the stretch is due to the rotation, not the lean.)

Pectoralis

Pectoralis Major

Stretch your pectoralis major with the Low Shoulder Flexor Stretch. This is identical to the high version that focused on your anterior deltoid, but now your bent elbow hooks the doorframe at mid-chest height.

Pectoralis Minor

Stretch your pectoralis minor with the Straight-Up Shoulder Flexor Stretch. Stand in Plank Position facing to a doorframe, with one shoulder in line with the doorframe. The front of that forearm rests high on the doorframe, with that palm on or above the doorframe. Lower your body into a very slight lunge position by stepping forward with the foot beside the doorframe. Rotate the front of your chest forward and down, as if your chest is a wheel that spins on an axle passing through your chest from side to side through your heart. Also look over the opposite shoulder shoulder. Finally, bend your knees slightly to sink your hips (but most of the stretch is due to the rotation, not the sink.) Try to keep the pressure on your forearm, not your palm.

Triceps

Stretch your tricep with the Elbow Extensor Stretch. Sit or stand upright. Bend one elbow, then raise that arm so the elbow is above the (same side) ear and the hand is on the upper back. With your other hand, push the high elbow behind the head and toward the floor.

Rotator Cuff

Stretch your supraspinatus and teres minor muscles with the Shoulder Adductor, Protractor, and Elevator Stretch. Stand in Plank Position. Put one arm across the body, with its shoulder lowered and palm facing down beside the hip. Grasp that elbow with the other hand, and pull it further down and around to the far side of the body.

(The infraspinatus and subscapularus muscles have no dedicated stretch, but are stretched along with the anterior and posterior deltoids during those stretches.)

Rectus Abdominis

The simplest stretch for the rectus abdominus is the Supine Abdominal Stretch. Lie on your back with your arms and legs straight, and your arms extended over your head. This stretch does not do much, but it may be where you need to start.

A deeper stretch is the Prone Abdominal Stretch, also knows as the "Cobra Pose" in yoga. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight, and raise your head by pushing yourself up with your arms. Also tilt your head to look up. (If you are not ready for straight arms, use the intermediate stretch of pushing off your elbows.)

Trapezius

Lower Trapezius

Stretch your lower trapezius with the Forward Back Extensor Stretch. Sit on the floor with one leg extended. Place that side's hand on the floor a bit out from your hip. Bend the other leg and place its foot outside your straight leg (beside the straight knee), then reach forward with the arm of that side to place the tricep on the far side of the raised knee. (You now have both a foot and elbow crossing over the straight leg.) Lean foward at the waist. Finally, rotate towards the hand on the floor until you feel a stretch in the lower trapezius. (This is the trickiest stretch listed. Isolating the lower trapezius takes muscle awareness and a bit of practice.)

Upper Trapezius

Stretch your upper trapezius with the Neck Extensor Stretch. Sit upright. Interlock yourr hands on the back of your head. Lightly pull the head straight down. Try to touch the chin to the chest as low as possible, while keeping the neck straight. Be sure to keep the shoulders relaxed, not hunched. Do not curve the neck.

A deeper stretch is the Neck Extensor and Rotation Stretch. Sit upright. Cross one hand over the back of your head, and hold the back of your head with its fingertips near the opposite ear. Aim the chin at that hand's shoulder. Try to touch the chin to the shoulder, while keeping the neck straight. Be sure to keep the shoulders relaxed, not hunched. Do not curve the neck. Repeat on the other side.

Middle Trapezius

Stretch your middle trapezius with the Low Shoulder Adductor and Extensor Stretch. Squat down facing to a doorframe, with one shoulder in line with the doorframe. Grip the doorframe at shoulder height. Keep the arm striaght and feet still as you lower your tush to the floor. Rotate slightly towards that arm. Do not bend foward at the waist.

Latissimus Dorsi

Stretch your latissimus dorsi with the High Shoulder Adductor and Extensor Stretch. This is identical to the low version that focused on your middle trapezius, but now your hold the doorframe at a height above the head.

Erector Spinae

Stretch your erector spinae by curling your back. You can lie on your back and then bring your knees to your chest by hugging them with your arms. You can alternate between "Cat Pose" and "Cow Pose" by kneeling while alternately raising and lowering the stomach as much as you can.

Obliques

The obliques are easy to stretch with the Seated Lower-Trunk Lateral Flexor Stretch. Sit upright. Place both hands behind your head. Interlock your fingers and keep your forearms in a straight line above your shoulders. Then, keeping your elbows back and forearms straight, bend sideways so one elbow moves towards the same side hip.

Biceps

The bicep is stretched using the Elbow Flexor Stretch, which is somewhat like a backwards shoulder flexor stretch. Stand sideways in a dooway. Position yourself off-center, so one side of your torso is even with the doorway. Raise the arm of that side to shoulder height, behind you with its palm against the wall and thumb pointing up. Then rotate your torso away from that arm. Also look away from the doorframe, over the shoulder that is rotating backwards.

Brachioradialis

The brachioradialis is stretched with the bicep.

Quadriceps

Stretch your quadriceps with the One-Leg Kneeling Knee Extensor Stretch. Kneel with one leg forward and one leg back. The forward leg should have its knee above the ankle. The backward leg should have its knee behind your hips on the floor with its lower leg on the floor and toes pointing behind you. Balance yourself by holding onto the forward knee or an object, while moving the hips and raised knee forward to stretch the front of your trailing leg.

Hamstrings

Stretch your hamstrings with the Recumbent Knee Flexor Stretch. Lie on your back against a doorway so one leg passes through it and the other leg goes up the wall beside the doorway. Both legs should be straight. Your raised leg should be flat against the wall. Place your hands palm-down on the floor, and use them to slowly scoot into the doorway until you feel the stretch in the back of your raised leg.

Calves

Stretch the calves with the Double Plantar Flexor Stretch. Stand on the edge of a stair or beam with both heels unsupported (hanging off the edge). Hold on to a support with one or both hands. Lower the heels, keeping the knees straight.