In its most basic form, stretching is a natural and instinctual activity; it is performed by humans and many animals. Stretching often occurs instinctively after waking from sleep, after long periods of inactivity, or after exiting confined spaces and areas. When I hear the arguments on whether to stretch or not to stretch, I feel like it’s trying to prove whether we really need to drink water or whether we really need to exercise. It’s a natural, instinctive activity and I can only speak from personal experience the benefits I see with stretching.
There are many factors and reasons for reduced joint ROM only one of which is muscular tightness. Muscle “tightness” results from an increase in tension from active or passive mechanisms. Passively, muscles can become shortened through postural adaptation, disuse or scarring; actively, muscles can become shorter due to spasm or contraction. Regardless of the cause, tightness limits range of motion, preventing you from getting that reach for the ball, kick on the field, triangle in BJJ, crouch for the barrel in surfing or other movement required in sport or daily life. To make up for the mobility shortfall, another area of the body compensates, planting the seed of potential for injury.
This post is a fusion of available research on stretching with what I personally see as an observer with clients, many yogis, and what I personally feel within my own body regarding stretching and the impact it has had so far on my life.
It is important to keep in mind that not all stretching is created equal, and I believe there is a load of BS out there. I also am not a fan on any sole form of yoga, although I do adopt parts from different styles and use those that I find most effective. Some forms of yoga are extreme and many practices do not focus on individual differences or acknowledge all body areas. For example, in the various yoga styles I have practiced; hamstring stretches are generally favoured over quadriceps stretches, the pecs are usually not thoroughly addressed, suboccipitals, forearms and key neck muscles are usually not addressed, and the list can go on. A student may also be in the class who already has an anterior pelvic tilt and hamstrings that are already too loose, meaning to stretch further will do nothing more than further destabilise their pelvis. Similarly there are many students attending Yoga classes who are hypermobile (women are more susceptible) and strength work would really be preferable to stretching. Hormonal changes within the female monthly cycle (not to mention pregnancy) also influence joint laxity and care should be taken to prevent joint destabilisation and aggravation. I have taken parts of yoga that work for me, parts of stretching that I learnt as a dancer growing up, parts of stretching that I learnt with exercise physiology and also what I have learnt with physical therapy to include not only stretching of the muscle, but stretching of the fascia and neural structures as well.. where appropriate!
Click here to watch my 3 favourite myofascial stretches for 3 key areas often found chronically tight in the general population, bike riders (pedal and motorised), desk workers, and athletes involved in combat sports;
Upper trapezius muscle and fascia stretch:
Pec muscle and pec fascia stretch:
Forearm and Upper arm fascial stretch:
Fascia is a soft connective tissue which wraps and connects the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Together, muscle and fascia make up what is called the myofascial system. For various reasons including disuse, not enough stretching, or injuries, the fascia and the underlying muscle tissue can become stuck together which results in restricted movement.
Here’s a picture of muscle being pulled apart, showing the fascia between and surrounding the muscle becoming stretched like a spiderweb.
I remember hearing that attempts to stretch muscle groups without stretching the surrounding fascia would deem the stretch ineffective, or at least less effective, yet have no clue where I originally heard this anymore to quote the reference. However, I have found that when I learnt how to stretch out fascia and not just the muscle, it felt like I was releasing tension I had never previously felt, regardless of all the stretching I had tried in the past. If I take the example of the Upper trapezius stretch above, notice that just tilting your head to the side to stretch the trapezius (a typically prescribed stretch) versus digging something into the muscle first and then stretching it (as in the above video) has a different outcome.. totally different. The former stretch can allow you to tilt the head to end joint range of motion in flexible individuals without effectively releasing the tension in the muscle, whereas with the latter you can almost pass out with the pain.
STRETCHING WON’T POSIVITELY AFFECT DOMS
Muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults (Herbert, Noronha, Kamper 2011). In other words, there’s no evidence to prove that stretching prevents muscle soreness after exercise.
STATIC STRETCHING BEFORE EXERCISE CAN INHIBIT STRENGTH ENDURANCE
It is recommended that heavy static stretching to be avoided before any maximal strength endurance training. Some theories claim that static stretching increases inflow of calcium to the muscles being stretched. The increase of calcium reduced the muscle twitch tension by up to sixty percent. Increased levels of calcium in resting muscles predisposes individuals to fatigue quicker than individuals who did not stretch. (Nelson, Kokkonen, Arnall 2005).
STRETCH TO GET STRONGER
Stretching can strengthen muscles, as neural disinhibition of muscle fibres is a process in becoming stronger. With strength training and where you are not getting muscle hypertrophy, you are activating more and more motor units that are available already in the motor-unit pool. Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) are nerve endings within your tendons that deactivate your muscles when you try to lift weights which are too heavy. Regular stretching gives your muscles the ability to fire more efficiently without shutting down in response to stretched tendons.
Note: GTOs are your protection against damage. Stops these from working, yes you will lift heavier but also damage to your body is likely. Take home message, don’t stretch excessively and time it correctly.
CHRONICALLY TIGHT MUSCLES CAN INHIBIT THEIR EQUALLY OPPOSING MUSCLE
The equally opposing muscle is called an antagonist. For example, the triceps (which extend the elbow) are antagonist to the biceps (which flex the elbow), and the hamstrings (which bend the knee and extend the hip) and antagonist to the quads (which extend the knee and the rectus femoris part flexes the hip). This happens in a normal body to allow for smooth movement. Once the movement is complete, the muscle that was contracted should then relax. However, a high resting tone in one muscle (chronic muscle tightness) reciprocally inhibits the antagonist – causing it to be in a weakened state at rest. This means that the weakened muscle is going to be weakened in contraction as well – so it is a muscle that is being held weak, and contracts weakly – which obviously can’t help you in what you are meant to be doing.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Stretching may not affect muscle soreness but I personally believe it helps with the recovery process, just the same way that massage and contast baths are recommended for sports recovery since they alter blood flow to the muscles and help remove accumulated waste products.
I believe any static stretching prior to exercise should include those muscles that are already chronically tight, such as commonly seen with pec minor as an example, since it’s level of chronic tension can weaken the antagonist via reciprocal inhibition, or can alter muscle recruitment in surrounding muscles.
When I stretch, I generally stretch a couple of chronically tight muscles pre-workout, sometimes more statically and sometimes more dynamically, and keep my main stretching sessions separate from my workouts.
Stretching ideas to consider are;
– static stretching before bed to calm the nervous system and promote a more restful sleep
– dynamic stretching pre-workout
– allow your strength training to improve your flexibility by performing movements full-range (within individual ability)
– stretch those muscles that are found to be short and stiff rather than just stretching everything and creating further imbalance.
Check out my book FLUID SURFER for a comprehensive guide to stretching muscle and fascia. Being a surfer to benefit from this book is not a prerequisite!
Henschke, N., Lin, C. Stretching before or after exercise does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. British Journal of sports medicine. 2011; 45:1249-50.
Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD004577. DOI: 10.1002/14651858
Inzerillo, John, MD. Passion Beyond Pain, 2008, Human Publishing Group.
McArdle, WD, Katch, FI & Katch, VL (ed), (2006), Exercise Physiology; Energy, Nutrition & Human Performance (6th ed). Pennsylvania, Lippencott Williams & Wilkins.
Nelson, Arnold G., Joke Kokkonen, and David A. Arnall. “Acute Muscle Stretching Inhibits Muscle Strength Endurance Performance.” Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association 19.2(2005): 338-343.