Today I wanted to talk about what stretching does. There are a lot of misconceptions about the actual effects of stretching are, and I am constantly asked about topic pertaining to stretching. Here are a few commonly asked questions; what should I stretch? how long/often should I stretch? what will stretching do for me? should I even stretch at all? Each one of these questions are important so I will address them one by one.
What should I stretch?
The answer to this is… it depends! There is no need to stretch a muscle that is at an already acceptable level of tonicity. Yes, a hamstring stretch feels nice but for most people the hamstring is not the problem. In many cases the hamstring feels tight because the hip flexors are putting them in a state of constant tension. This problem an even manifest as lower back pain! So, should you stretch the hamstring? No. You should stretch the hip flexors so that the hamstrings are able to get back to a normal resting length. This same situation, where one tight muscle causes another area of the body to have a problem, can happen throughout the entire body. In essence, if you want to know what you need to stretch you should probably take advantage of those free program design sessions to figure out what exactly is going on with your body.
How long/often should I stretch?
There is no definitive answer to these questions. However, a good rule of thumb to go by is stretch for around 30 seconds at least 5 days per week. The best time to stretch is after you’re done working out. “Not in the warm up?” you ask. The answer is no. Stretching the wrong area in the warm up can even be a bad thing in some cases. Like other forms of relaxation, stretching can also be the best thing for you when you feel stressed and anxious.
What will stretching do for me?
Let’s start with the things stretching DOESN’T help with. Stretching will not help with preventing delayed onset muscle soreness, injury prevention, enhancing performance, aligning muscle/tendon fibers, trigger points, or increasing muscle length. Wait… what? Stretching does’t increase muscle length? No, but I’ll explain that in a little bit. What you should know is that stretching is good for the heart, the mind, and,most importantly, it’s good for the nerves.
Should I even stretch at all?
The answer is absolutely YES. General whole body stretching is necessary to stay mobile. You need to be able to move, so stretching is a must. Moreover, a targeted stretching program can be used as a way to enhance a workout (think back to the hamstring and hip flexor story). This is why almost all of my clients receive stretching as a part of their corrective exercise strategy.
So at this point you might be asking your self “WTFruit happens when I stretch? I mean won’t it make me more flexible?!?!” Well here’s how it works. We all adapt to the stresses we put on our bodies. In turn, our bodies try to make our life more efficient to those stresses (i.e. our hip flexors become short if we sit for long periods of time every day). This action happens the nerves in the muscles sending signals to the brain on what is a “safe” length for the muscles to be at through the stretch reflex. What stretching does is increase the tolerance, or muscle length until you feel, the stretching sensation. Thus, becoming more flexible through stretching is a result of decreasing the sensation of stretching. It’s the same reason why you need two cups of coffee now even though you used to only need one. Our brain, and our nerves, just need a little more stimulus (whether its stretching or caffeine) to get the same effect as when we first started.
Bottom line. If you want to have the right range of motion, your brain, nerves, and their connection to your muscles, must be in tune. Stretching will help keep homeostasis, but other than that… well, not much else. For more info you can check out the first brief link and more extensive second link.