Stretching and Flexibility: To Stretch or Not to Stretch
Lately there seems to be a lot of different opinions on the benefits of stretching and flexibility. I have heard that if you are strength tested before and after performing a static stretch that you can actually test weaker because of stretching. I also have heard that stretching after intense exercise can have benefits of reliving muscle soreness. I do know that for me stretching feels good. I once read that even a dog stretches himself out fully after getting up from a nap, so why shouldn’t you? I’ll try to take some of the mystery out of stretching (but actually probably add more) and help you discover why stretching is good for you and the different modes of stretching.
The bottom line is that gaining flexibility is good for you. However, not all stretching is created equal and if done improperly can be harmful and lead to injury. it is important that you know what happens when you stretch and to take this knowledge to determine how to gain the flexibility that you need to perform at your best.
Most people commonly refer to flexibility as how far they can stretch their muscles. While this is part if flexibility it is not the full definition. Flexibility is defined the ability of your joints to move through a full range of motion. Having flexibility in your muscles allows for more movement around the joints. Every person, no matter what shape they are in; needs to have a certain level of flexibility. Most people actually already have the proper amount of flexibility already. What this means is that they have enough flexibility to meet their everyday activities with a built in buffer to accommodate the occasional slip or fall.
When performing stretching exercises many people do not realize that there also is a strength component that must go along with the exercise. Through stretching, you increase your joints range of motion and the joints musculature surroundings must accommodate this new range of motion that it is not used to handling. If proper strength training is not incorporated with stretching, injury can result. Basically, you need to have a strength and flexibility program that concurred with each other at the same time.
What Happens at the Microscopic Level when Stretching?
Let’s take a look at what is happening to your muscles at a microscopic level when you stretch. Our muscles cells are made up of a basic unit called the sarcomere; and three major “safeguards” or proprioceptors called the Golgi tendon organ, the muscle spindle, and the Pacinian corpuscles. Lets take a look at each of these units of the muscle.
A sarcomere is the basic functional unit of striated muscle. In the human body, each muscle is made up of multiple bundles of muscle fibers, or cells. The muscle fibers, in turn, are comprised of numerous finer strands called myofibrils. These myofibrils are any of the longitudinal parallel contractile elements of a muscle cell. They are constructed of overlapping strands of protein polymers called actin and myosin. organized into regular, repeating sub-units. These sub-units are the sarcomeres, and it is their patterned arrangement that gives striated muscle its characteristic banded appearance.
A bit Confusing? Take a look at the video to get a clearer picture.
The word proprioception means “sense of self”. In our limbs, the proprioceptors are sensors that provide information about joint angle, muscle length, and tension; which is integrated to give information about the position of the limb in space. These proprioceptors are our bodies safeguards which can sense changes in the muscle tension and protects us against severe muscular injury. When the proprioceptors sense a change that is too sudden, too intense, or both, they inhibit nervous impulses sent to the muscle in question.
Golgi Tendon Organ
The Golgi tendon organ acts as a “safety valve” and provides feedback about the bodies position and protects the muscle and connective tissue. This safety valve signal is transmitted through the motor cortex and the transmission is called the feedback loop. In essence, when tension becomes to great, greater than the brain can recall; the Golgi tendon organ’s signal inhibits the contraction stimulus and reduces the risk of injury.
The muscle spindle is a special sensory receptor fiber within the belly of the muscle that detects excessive stretch of the muscle. It primarily detects the changes in the length of the muscle. Unlike the Golgi tendon organ which transmits information through the motor cortex, the muscle spindles convey length information to the central nervous system via sensory neurons. This information can be processed by the brain to determine the position of body parts.
The Pacinian corpuscles are nerve endings in the skin, responsible for sensitivity to pain and pressure. Pacinian corpuscles detect gross pressure changes and vibrations and are rapidly adapting receptors. (that is why you don’t constantly feel your clothing against your skin). Any deformation in the corpuscle causes it to send an inhibitor single from the muscle to the brain.
Targeting Your Flexibility and Stretching Training
Some of you may be asking “How much flexibility is enough?” There is not a straight forward answer to this question. However, the easy answer is that you want enough flexibility to meet the needs that you encounter in your everyday life. Again, that amount will be different for everyone. If you are a gymnast or dancer, then your everyday amount is much greater than a sedentary person, or even greater than an active and fit person.
An important thing to think about when deciding on a stretch and flexibility training program are your specific desired results. Flexibility can be broken down into three components: 1) Joint Specificity, 2) Position and Speed Specificity, and 3) Resistance Training (weight lifting).
The concept of Joint Specificity means that a flexibility training program for a particular joint, will not improve flexibility in any other joints. Therefore, if you have a particular sport or activity that you are training for then you only need to prioritize your flexibility training to the joints involved in that sport or activity.
Position and Speed Specificity
If you are training for a particular sport, then Position and Speed Specificity stretching exercises must be very similar in form and speed of the skill you are trying to improve. Training specifically for the movement pattern, speed, joint position, and type of contraction produces improvement specifically in those movement parameters.
Resistance Training (weight lifting)
If you are going to stretch and become more flexible then you must have adequate strength throughout the joint’s full ROM. Most people who go to the gym and lift weights feel that time taken to stretch and become flexible is time taken away from pumping iron. The converse can be said about many people who take care to stretch and be flexible, they see no need in increasing their strength. What should be noted is that strength and flexibility go hand in hand. If you neglect one the other suffers. Performing exercises for both strength and flexibility need not sacrifice either one. Flexibility training and strength training can actually enhance one another.
So You’re Going to Start Stretching, What do You Need to Know?
Stretch Warm Muscles
First of all it is important to know that body temperature effects flexibility. If your body is warm this will increase your range of motion in your joints. Therefore, it is important to warm-up before your perform any stretching exercises. You can do either a passive or active warm-up. A passive warm-up can be taking a hot shower or even sitting in a sauna. While an active warm-up involves some sort of muscular activity to warm the body up. Doing a warm-up makes the muscles feel looser and more supple. Actually, they do become less viscous following a period of being shaken. This is called thixotrophy which by definition is: the property of certain gels or fluids that are thick (viscous) under normal conditions, but flow (become thin, less viscous) over time when shaken, agitated, or otherwise stressed. So it makes sense that the best time to perform a stretching exercise is after a training session.
Reasons to Stretch
Increase Range of Motion
If you are trying to improve the rang of motion is certain joints, it is recommend that you stretch to a point of mild to moderate discomfort. Everyone will have a different threshold of pain so do what feels right for you. Also, if you are trying to increase your range of motion you should not perform stretching exercises everyday. Just like in resistance training, your muscles need time to heal.
Some people stretching find it to be very relaxing and enjoy the calming feeling afterwards. For them it is an exercise for both the body and the soul. Such slow and focused exercise programs such as yoga and tai chi are an excellent method of relaxation and stress reduction. Stretching can help tense people reduce anxiety and muscle tension, as well as lower blood pressure and breathing rate. A good stretching-and-breathing routine can be as effective as any other means of relaxation.
Prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
I bet it is safe to say that most everyone that is reading this article has experience muscle soreness. Especially that muscle soreness that comes one to two days after an intense workout. This type of muscle soreness is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) describes a phenomenon of muscle pain, muscle soreness or muscle stiffness that is felt 12-48 hours after exercise, particularly at the beginning of a new an exercise program, after a change in sports activities, or after a dramatic increase in the duration or intensity of exercise. It is a muscle soreness or pain that is caused by an unusual exertion to the muscle. DOMS is not the same muscle soreness that you feel from muscle fatigue. It is possible that a stretching routine after a hard effort can help rid your muscles of hydroxyproline, lactic acid, and other wastes produced by your intense workout.
Types of Stretching
Although there are many different methods of stretching (PNF Method, Contract Antagonist-Relax Method, Contract-Relax Method, Fascial Stretching, etc.), I will discuss the two most common: Static Stretching and Dynamic Stretching.
is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. It is composed of various techniques that gradually lengthen a muscle to an elongated position. In static stretching you move slowly toward your extreme range of motion for the particular joint that you are stretching to the point of mild to moderate discomfort and hold that position for 20 seconds to one minutes. 20 seconds is the minimum duration to get the benefits of stretching.
It is important to note that static stretching is not recommended prior to resistance training. Studies have shown that it can temporarily lower your strength levels. Doing a standard static hamstring stretch has been shown to decrease the eccentric strength of that muscle for 60 minutes following the stretch. In their publication ‘The influence of stretching and warm-up exercises on Achilles tendon reflex activity’ Rosenbaum and Hennig demonstrated that by statically stretching the Achilles tendon peak force falls by 5 percent and the speed of force production falls by 8 percent.
The other form of static stretching is called static-passive stretching. In a static-passive stretch you have a trainer or partner move you toward your maximum range of motion. There was a time when many training programs would have a person conduct an static-active stretching routine before a workout and conclude with a static-passive stretching session. The jury is still out on the benefits of either method. Take a look online and you will find as many articles about the negative effects of stretching versus the positive benefits of stretching.
Dynamic stretching uses speed of movement, momentum and active muscular effort to bring about a stretch. Unlike static stretching the end position is not held. Dynamic stretching involves swinging the arms and or legs in a controlled manner which increases the joints range of movement. It also increases blood and oxygen flow to soft tissues prior to exertion. Arms circles, exaggerating a kicking action and walking lunges (without weights) are examples of dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching is useful before competition and has been shown to reduce muscle tightness. It also prepares the body for physical exertion and sports performance. Some studies seem to suggest that dynamic stretches before competition are preferably to static stretches.
Links to Articles about Dynamic versus Static Stretching
Warming up: The dynamic alternative to static stretching Peak Performance. Retrieved 2010-07-25
Dynamic Stretching vs. Static Stretching Elite Soccer Conditioning. Retrieved 2010-07-25
The Bottom Line
I think that I provided enough information to get you thinking about stretching and flexibility in ways that you have not thought of before. This information is just the tip of the iceberg and you will really need to do your research to find out what type of stretching and flexibility program that is right for you. Doing the research for this article has definitely made me rethink my stretching and flexibility program.
The final analysis is that we all need flexibility and for us active sports mined people we need more than what a “typical” days activities have in store for us. For some of use that typical day could be any or a combination of the following: 50 mile bike ride, 30 mile trail run, brick training for a triathlon, walking the dog, taking a hike, or a day of relaxation.