In its most basic form, stretching is a natural and instinctive 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 arguments on whether to stretch or not to stretch, I feel this is analogous to whether we really need to drink water or whether we really need to exercise. Stretching is a natural, instinctive activity and I can only speak from personal experience the benefits I see with stretching. Stretching, however, must be appropriate, active and deliberate to be beneficial.
There are many factors and reasons for reduced joint range of motion (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, rock-climbing hold, barrel in surfing or other movement requirement in sporting or daily life. Muscle and soft tissue tightness can lead to injury in a compensatory area and may create muscle imbalances where other areas are forced to do the work in a preferably functioning state.
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 yes I do 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 many Yogic practices, hamstring stretching is generally favoured over quadriceps stretching, the pecs are usually not thoroughly addressed, sub-occipitals, 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 keep their bodies in balance. 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 what I experienced as a dancer growing up, parts of what I have 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!
Below is an example of a daily shoulder mobility routine which develops strength within your available range of motion (useful whether you are a surfer or not). These movements, when performed correctly, should be making you sweat a little!
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.
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.
Below are my 3 favourite myofascial stretches for 3 key areas often found chronically tight everyday modern homo sapiens:
Upper trapezius muscle and fascia stretch:
Pec muscle and pec fascia stretch:
Forearm and Upper arm fascial stretch:
Emotions and Fascia?
Tension in the fascia can arise from various sources such as physical trauma, overuse micro-trauma, disease, stress, surgical or other medical procedures and apparently even blocked emotions or memories. There exists much documentation indicating there is a primary cause and effect relationship between emotional trauma, the suppression of any memory of emotional trauma, and retained tension in the physical body. Scientifically though, through which mechanisms does this occur? And where are the studies to back this up? Answers I’d like to know, and I can only hypothesise that it could be related to the neurotransmitters released in times of fear/anger which have systemic body implications. Perhaps the proof is simply in that we can purport the butterflies or knots in the stomach, altered bowel movements, or rapid heart rate as examples of what generally accompanies an emotional situation. When stressed we also tend to chronically contract muscles which leads to reduced capillary blood flow in muscles, and further this can lead to muscle aching, atrophy, tautness and tightness.
Repeated stressors cause what is referred to as calciphylaxis, or an induced hypersensitivity in which tissues respond to stress with a sudden calcification. Calcium causes the muscle proteins titin to bind to actin while at the same time actin and myosin create cross-bridges. Muscle not only uses ATP for contraction but also uses calcium, sodium, potassium and other co-factors for function. An action potential occurs when sodium and potassium move across the cell membrane. With thickening and loss of elasticity of the fascia, neurotransmitters like epinephrine, acetylcholine, and serotonin, lose their ability to keep communication open between the mind and the body. Tight fascia can not only constrict blood vessels but can also entrap nerves and eventually form adhesions and scar tissue. Calcium is like stone and when muscle fascia develops calcifications it becomes rock hard, limiting mobility and causing pain. (Inzerillo, 2008).
I notice a change in how my body feels when I stretch and a period of greater calmness immediately after stretching. When I pondered over this, I came to the thought that perhaps the benefits of stretching are not so much about physically stretching the muscle, but perhaps they are more to do with moving energy around the body, including the apparent stuck emotions. Thomas Myers in Anatomy Trains – Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, states that ‘energy meridians run parallel to fascial systems’. Maybe I was onto something.. but there’s not enough current documentation on this area to even reference this adequately. Unfortunately, there are problems with studying the energetic side of things, and many will just discount those ‘fluffy’, alternative areas of health where science cannot prove it.
Stretching Won’t Positively Affect DOMS
Muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in healthy adults (Herbert, Noronha, Kamper 2011).
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 the Strength of their Equally Opposing Muscles
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 optimally in what you are meant to be doing.
Take Home Message on Stretching
Stretching may not affect muscle soreness but I personally believe it helps with the recovery process, just the same way that massage and contrast 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 sometimes more dynamically, and keep my main stretching sessions separate from my workouts. I perform active mobility techniques before and often as part of my workout. I believe in full-range, multi-directional, multi-angle, multi-joint movement.
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.
- generate muscle tension within a stretch for full-effect.
Join my Fluid Body program for all my mobility techniques.
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.