It’s one of the most debated topics these days and the most misunderstood. Whether you run, ride, play footy, golf or walk the dog every morning, you should stretch. Not to become a Cirque Du Soleil contortionist, but for your own good. And yes, there are certain times when stretching will be more effective for you and times when stretching is not the answer. Today I am going to help you identify both, but first we need to understand why stretching is good for you.
Why Stretching Is Good For You
The most basic answer to this firstly is, stretching encourages movement and we all know the importance of moving. We, as human beings were built to move and unfortunately in today’s society everything we do seems to put our bodies in prolonged positions creating joint stiffness, muscular tension and postural imbalances. It also plays a really important part in keeping our joints healthy. How? When you stretch, the muscle fibers are pulled out to its full length.
So What Does Stretching Actually Do For Us?
In short, stretching helps maintain good muscle health. But what does this even mean? What you may not realize is that stretching does a whole lot more than just elongating muscle fibers (sorry, just a fancy way of saying ‘stretching the muscle’). Stretching enhances our physical fitness, enhances our ability to learn and perform skilled movements, it increases mental and physical relaxation, it enhances the development of body awareness, reduces the risk of injury to muscle, tendons and joints, (we’ll get back to this) and it increases suppleness due to the stimulation of the production of chemicals which lubricate connective tissue. Phew, that was a lot to get out.
What Does This Mean?
If you are someone who trains heavily, then your muscles are going to get used to one of two things. (Or maybe even both…)
- The minimal range of motion used doing a specific repetitive activity (ie running/cycling)
- The repetitive contraction under heavy load. (Lifting weights)
Eg. 1) Activities like running and cycling take your muscles through a specific range of motion. During both activities, your joints are not moving through its entire range (and rightly so. You’d have a funny looking gait if you did!) So overtime, our muscles tighten in a way that allows us to use this range only. Now some would argue that this causes rigidity within the muscles in turn making our movements efficient due to the bounce back reaction time, thus helping us go faster. This can be a good thing if running is all you are doing and your muscles are in good condition (no pain/trigger points) and your running technique is flawless. Then go for it. But in the long run (yes I mean long term, big picture, not just a long run… but you see why I had to use the pun!) By restricting your range of motion, as you get older, your joints start to stiffen and collagen fibers start to increase over your elastic connective tissue meaning we lose range of motion that our joints should actually be able to perform. With a loss of range of motion compensatory patterns start to develop and we start to experience further imbalances, pain and possible injury.
Eg. 2) Intense muscular contraction under load (lifting weights) is important to our muscular development and bone density. Again, whilst under heavy load, our muscles aren’t taken through their entire range. If the muscle groups worked are not stretched afterwards, the muscle will retain this decreased range of motion.
Common Mistakes When Stretching
When To Stretch:
After strenuous exercise.
When sitting for long periods. If our muscles are in a lengthened/shortened position due to bad posture. Take the Pectorals and Rhomboids for example. If the shoulders round forward, the Pectorals are shortened and the Rhomboids are passively lengthened. These muscles are no longer resting in their normal position, which produces hypertonicity. (Involuntary partial contraction within the muscle.) We must stretch the shortened muscles (Pectorals) and strengthen the lengthened muscles (Rhomboids, lower Trapezius) to reverse the rounded shoulder position.
Anytime you feel tightness in your body. This is your body’s way of communicating with you. Listen to it! Relax and stretch.
When NOT to Stretch:
If you have an acute inflammation/injury
It is common to hear ‘no stretching before activity’. This generally refers to static stretching, which relaxes the muscles, so yes generally speaking we do not want to perform static stretches before activity. We want to excite the muscles therefore dynamic stretching is a great way to do this whilst taking the muscles and joints through their range of motion.
We are generally taught to hold a stretch for a particular length of time when in all honesty, we can’t have a “one size fits all” approach. Every body is different and requires our own unique attention. Make it a habit to listen to your body and try taking this approach.
Firstly set up your position for the targeted muscle group to be stretched. Slowly start to move into the stretch. The goal is to relax the targeted muscle/muscle group throughout the stretch. This is what determines the timing of the stretch. Until the tension in the muscle group starts to ease.
Positioning and Loading Errors
Improper positioning will firstly prevent the full benefit of a stretch to the specific muscle group and secondly it can load other structures causing injury. For example, when stretching the hamstrings, it is common to see a standing forward fold. The problem with this stretch is that if you are inflexible, you may be folding forward from the spine with a posterior tilt in the pelvis instead of hinging at the hips, which places too much pressure through the lower back. When doing static stretches it is important to get in a comfortable position. For a hamstring stretch, we encourage you to sit with your legs straight in front of you. If you cannot sit tall on your sit bones, place a blanket or pillow under your bottom until you are able to sit nice and tall. A slight bend in the knees is fine to begin with. From the hips, slowly bend forward keeping a long straight spine. This will eliminate pressure in the lower back.
Overstretching will cause microscopic tears in the muscle. When stretching it is important to be aware of what you are feeling. A ‘general rule’ is if you feel a ‘stretch pain’ and you are able to relax and breathe normally then this is a good position. If it’s too painful to relax and you start to hold your breath, then you have gone to far and must back out of the stretch.
This video is a good example of a mobility movement sequence that takes the muscles and joints through a wide range of movement under load. Great for increasing strength and flexibility.
So let me get one thing straight. I’m not saying stretching is the be all and end all. If you stretch, you still may go out on the weekend and get injured while running. It’s about balance. Static Stretches to release tightness, Active Stretching to increase mobility, Dynamic Stretches before activity and PNF Stretching to increase flexibility. Remember this is not gospel but a guide. Listen to your body.
Keep your muscles in good condition and you will have the mobility to take your muscles throughout any range of motion under load and THAT is what’s important.
Want to learn more about stretching? Check out these great reads:
Stretch To Win by Ann and Chris Frederick
Fascial Stretch Therapy by Ann and Chris Frederick
Stretching and Flexibility by Kit Laughlin