Stretching- what you really need to know
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
In my two and a half decades in the fitness industry there has been great strides forward made with understanding of all aspects of fitness. Part of this evolution has been increased awareness that stretching is beneficial, and remarkably yoga has become basically mainstream.
While we know it’s great to stretch, it’s not a panacea and there’s more to the story about optimally using stretching (AKA flexibility training). Here’s what you need to know:-
* Stretching can BOTH reduce post exercise soreness AND make you sore It's long been believed that stretching at the end of a workout reduces muscle soreness through enhancing circulation to the muscles, an effect akin to applying ice. Paradoxically, through strenuous exercise there is inevitable micro tears to muscle fibers which are the primary cause of soreness. Through then stretching more tearing and trauma can result, interfering with the recovery process and leading to greater soreness. Stretching done separately from other exercise can also cause soreness, particularly if you stretch further than usual or do unfamiliar stretches. Getting sore from stretching though is more likely if you're cold. Despite the science explained around increased micro tears from stretching after exercise, the muscles are nice and warm and hence pliable then, so in my view and experience that means it typically doesn't result in more soreness, when done sensibly at the end of a workout. In practice if you do exercise(s) which you're not accustomed to, or at an intensity you're not used to, you are going to in all likelihood get pretty sore and there'll be little you can do (stretching or otherwise) to eliminate that delayed muscle soreness. Being well hydrated and fueled, plus re-hydrating and re-fueling are your best bets though. In my time in cricket conditioning I learnt of studies showing the calf muscles of the bowlers front leg (during delivery) shortened appreciably after a days play relative to the other leg. This shows how muscles can shorten through repetitious activity common to many forms of exercise and sport. Stretching post activity is an effective way of restoring the range of movement, so you can then move again optimally, freely and with less risk of injury. While much of the above may seem rather ambiguous and contradictory ultimately there is an important distinction in the wording of the subtitle i.e. 'stretching CAN reduce soreness and make you sore' rather than 'stretching DOES reduce soreness and make you sore.' Read on for more clarity.
*Stretching can BOTH be harmful when injured AND useful when injured As explained in the first point if you have muscle tears and then stretch you can cause more tearing. As many muscular injuries are varying levels of tears (of a greater degree than the usual micro tearing that results from strenuous exercise) you want to avoid lengthening the muscle and let it rest. Although much of the information presented so far may be seemingly uncertain and complex, this one is certain- if you've torn or strained a muscle (or even just suspect you have) DO NOT STRETCH IT until you've consulted the appropriate health professional. Usually there's a point in the recovery process from muscular injury where stretching becomes necessary to break up scar tissue and restore decent flexibility. This however must wait until the re-knitting and healing of the muscle fibers has taken place. Again, consultation with a qualified professional is needed.
*Breathing matters Long exhalations activate the parasympathetic nervous system, this is the opposite of the fight-flight stress response, and as you can imagine, has the opposite effect to that stress response i.e. when you're stressed muscles become tense in readiness to fight or flee, whereas the relaxation resulting from activation of the parasympathetic nervous system causes muscles to relax. The yogi's know about this and use breathing very deliberately. You can apply the same idea with your own stretching- breath in for 4 seconds and out for 6. As the muscles relax you are able to both stretch further and with less discomfort. Being able to stretch further is essentially the object of flexibility training, do it often enough and the muscles become longer more permanently.
*There are optimal times to stretch We are generally more flexible in the afternoon, this is mainly due to body temperature (& thus muscle temperature) climbing throughout the day. You'll know from experience that trying a big stretch as soon as you get out of bed isn't much fun! As mentioned, after a workout your body temperature and muscles are going to be really warm, so stretching won't be as uncomfortable and you'll be able to stretch further. After a decent workout in the morning your muscles are going to be much warmer than they would in the afternoon if you hadn't exercised. Despite any risk of further micro tears to muscle fibers, I believe post workout really is a golden opportunity to stretch in order to improve your flexibility. It's a great habit to get into and once you do you'll feel like it completes a workout and calms the body and allows time to cool down before moving on to the next task in your day. Similarly a hot bath or shower can warm the muscles enough to get them nice and malleable and ripe to stretch. Another great time to stretch is during the work day to break up long periods of sitting. The standing work stations have become more common as the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting on metabolic rate and muscle flexibility have become more known and understood. The muscles around the neck, shoulders, upper, mid and lower back, plus the hips all tend to shorten as a result of sitting at a desk and/or computer. Getting up every hour or so to stretch and breathe can not only counteract the negative effects on muscles and posture but also help with concentration and stress. Although it's ideal to stretch when warm, in some instances it just pays to stretch whenever you can. When it was pointed out to me that my lack of flexibility around the hips was inevitably going to cause injuries given the physical demands associated with my job, I knew I needed to prioritise stretching particular muscles and just did so as often as possible. If I had the opportunity to stretch while waiting around while cold, I'd still stretch, just not as far as I would when warm. It's the cumulative effect of regularly lengthening muscles that's going to result in significant flexibility changes. I've neglected to mention stretching before exercise. Many people do so believing it's a diligent way of preventing injury. While there is benefit in increasing range of movement before exercise or sport, actually warming the muscles up is of most importance. It is in fact possible to both warm muscles and increase the range at the same time- through dynamic stretching. This is moving through a range rather than holding a stretch for an extended period (static stretching). circling arms or swinging a leg are 2 basic examples of dynamic stretching, many can be done while moving backward, forward or sideways while/as/by skipping/jogging/walking. There are many different types of stretching in addition to static and dynamic such as ballistic, PNF & CRAC. To explain and detail each would really require a separate blog article, so for the sake of ease of understanding I'm really referring to static stretching in this post as it's the most commonly known and used. Back to the before workout stretching- static stretching generally isn't conducive to optimal physical performance for 2 reasons. It can have the effect of turning the nervous system off, more specifically this is the activation of Parasympathetic nervous system explained earlier. Secondly there is a loss of elastic energy which impacts strength and power, a simple way to understand this effect is to think of an elastic band which has been overly stretched and thus becomes so loose and slack that it can't be then pulled, released and flung across a room with the same speed that it otherwise could. The degree of this effect is debatable however and there can be merit in doing some static stretching as part of warming up, especially when a really tight muscle can be lengthened to optimise the function of a joint critical to the ensuing activity. Some physical therapists may indeed suggest doing exactly that with an injured or rehabilitated muscle. While all of this may create yet more grey around stretching, as a general rule go for dynamic stretches in the warm up and static stretches during cool down. *The longer term benefits are much greater than any short term or immediate ones While the possibility of less muscle soreness and restoring range to pre-workout levels may be worthwhile reasons to stretch, in truth the major benefits from stretching are the cumulative effects from doing so regularly over an extended period. If tight hamstrings and butt muscles are contributing factors to your intermittent back pain, then getting them more flexible more permanently is going to be wisest. That of course is going to take consistent effort over months. Getting clear of the knee soreness I had last year took some freeing up of the quad (front thigh), groin & hip flexor (deep upper thigh) muscles, so I stretched them as a priority 3-5 times per week for 4 months without fail. I stretch all the major muscles multiple times per week and know there are certain area's that take precedence depending on what is happening with my body. Basically tight muscles adversely effect the way joints function and you need to keep stretching them consistently if you are to significantly reduce that tightness.
* Too much flexibility can be a bad thing Due to all the sitting and inertia in modern life stretching is generally of benefit, however it can be a hindrance. Pilates gained great popularity after being adopted by ballet dancers in the U.S. who had extreme flexibility at the expense of joint stability or strength. For most of us, most of the time, tight muscles limit joint function & contribute to injury, but as you can imagine, laxity of joints can be just as problematic. Hypermobility can be the result of family history, it can also be general or joint specific. It can of course be from simply stretching too much and too far. What's important to understand and recognise is that while it may feel good to stretch your very bendy parts it's more than likely the uncomfortable and thus tight bits that are in most need of stretching. Be smart, and as much as possible, specific about your stretching- remember it's no panacea. * Effectiveness of stretching can be limited, there may be better options… Some times muscles have so much tension in them (AKA knots!) that stretching is like trying to break through a boulder with a tooth pick.
To break up that serious muscle tension nothing beats the thumbs or elbows of a massage therapist. Massaging yourself can also be very effective though and there are an increasing array of readily available tools to help get at the spots you can't reach yourself i.e. research 'muscle mate', foam rollers, spiky balls etc As you free up the muscles you often find the stretching not only becomes more comfortable but also much more effective. Another way in which effectiveness of stretching is limited is when there is a compensation pattern due to weak or under active muscles. This is a little complex but basically there are muscles that have the role of stabilising joints, while other (typically larger more superficial) muscles perform the role of moving bones. Often due to injury or poor posture the smaller stabilising muscles become weak and under active, while the larger muscles normally involved with bigger movements have to compensate and become overworked and tight. These overworked and tight muscles may not be able to resume a normal level of tension and length until there is a strengthening or activating of the smaller stabilising muscles, and so the act of stretching those big muscles may be only useful to a moderate degree and some time and energy better spent on exercises that specifically work on those stabilisers, this will help in the process of getting the optimal levels of flexibility.
* Hold stretches for 30 seconds or 6 long slow breathes.
Although there'll be individual variation, 6 deliberate slow breathes takes about 30 seconds. (You may need to do 8-10 though if your breath and heart rate are still elevated immediately after intense exercise). As explained the focused exhalations will allow for a greater stretch. There are all sorts of studies around how long to hold for and the recommendations vary quite a bit. If you were to review them I think you'd find 30 seconds works out to be a good average. People have a tendency to hold for nowhere near as long as they think, so time it or count those long breathes. For tight muscles that you need to really address you can repeat relevant stretches multiple times. Just as truly effective programming for other aspects of fitness includes structure and detail, so too does stretching, so don't leave it to chance or feel; plan and know how, when and which stretches you'll be doing. That'll give you the greatest chance of making it habit. IN SUMMARY: *Don't rely on stetching to reduce delayed soreness. Eating well & being hydrated will help with that. * Don't stretch an injured muscle, stretching often becomes useful later in the rehab process. * Focus on long exhalations, it'll help reduce muscle tension & thus allow you to stretch further & more comfortably. * It takes time & consistency to improve flexibility, most of the benefit comes in the medium to long term. * Stretching is not a panacea- too much range can be harmful. Additionally sometimes activating/stabilising muscles is needed, similarly redusing tension through massage can be of most benefit. * As a rule- dynamic stretching is best before activity & static most optimal afterwards. * Hold stretches for a timed 30 seconds or 6 long exhalations. Don't guess, you won't hold long enough. Want or need to started proper stretching routine but not sure how? Why not get in touch and see how I can help.
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