The Importance of Stretching
We've all been told that we need to stretch, but there is a lot of controversy going around about whether stretching is good or bad for you. I'm going to stop right there and tell you that stretching is good for you; however, much like water, sunshine, and chocolate, too much of a good thing can be bad.
Without going into too much science mumbo-jumbo, I'd like to focus on three particular areas that I think are the most important in understanding stretching. First is the muscle fiber itself. Muscles are comprised of hundreds of these fibers and these fibers have a lot of stuff in them that when activated contract (shorten) or relax (lengthen) the muscle. The second player is the nervous system. The nervous system sends electrical signals that tell our muscles what to do and when to do it. Last but not least, there is a protective mechanism within our muscles called the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex forces the muscle to contract if it is stretched beyond a certain limit. The limit is different for every person and can determine your regular range of motion. Our bodies have gotten into a habit of moving a certain way and our nervous system has gotten used to those movements determining them safe. However, if you try to move beyond the "safe" positions the nervous system will engage the stretch reflex stopping the movement.
Stretching by itself will not make you faster or stronger. In fact, studies have shown that stretching prior to exercise can decrease strength and performance. Also, improper stretching can actually cause more harm than good. We can overstretch the muscle which can cause it to tear and that can take weeks or more to heal. So why then should we stretch? Stretching can improve flexibility, increase energy, relieve pain, and help prevent injury. Stretching has even been proven to strengthen muscles long term. Keep in mind, there are several different ways to stretch and appropriate times to use them. The following is a general guideline that I’d recommend.
- After waking up in the morning it is good to use short dynamic stretches. Run your body through a routine of movements like bending or twisting to engage and wake up all your muscle groups.
- Before a workout or exercise of any kind, it’s recommended to use dynamic stretching. Some suggest ballistic stretching, but that can push your body beyond your normal range of motion leaving you vulnerable to injury. Instead, warm up with stretches like knee highs and lunges.
- Post-exercise is a good time for static stretching. This is holding a stretch for 15 seconds or more. You can even partner with someone to do passive stretching. This is when one person static stretches the other. Static stretching can increase blood flow, flush out lactic acid, and realign muscle fibers.
- Much like when you wake up in the morning, use dynamic stretching after long periods of inactivity. Stand up, walk around, bend side to side, twist your trunk and shake your legs. This can help prevent muscle weakness in the inactive muscles and will also increase blood flow.
- Before going to bed, give some attention to the achy muscles that you used throughout the day. Do some isolated static stretching which is targeting a certain muscle or group of muscles and holding that stretch for 30 seconds or more. This will calm the muscle down and help you get a more restful sleep.
I try to incorporate a variety of stretches in my massages as the stretching can help realign muscle fibers, relax tension, and improve range of motion. Often I’ll even show my clients a certain stretch or two that can help prolong the effects of the massage. Stretching can be very beneficial. Be safe stretching and if it starts to feel too painful you’re probably stretching too far or too much. Just dial it back a little and keep to it. Remember, use it or lose it, that’s your muscles motto so keep moving!
Live Feeling Better
By Jeremy Dickerson, BCTMB, LMT