When is Stretching Necessary, and When is it a Waste of Time?
Everyone has stretched at some point in their lives.
Maybe you do it religiously, or maybe you haven't stretched in years.
Do you remember when your teacher would make you do a random assortment of stretches before playing basketball during grade school?
What was the purpose of all that stretching? Was it necessary?
What about the stretching that you perform as part of your daily routine?
You know, the kind when you try to reach for something overhead, or when you want to bend down and tie your shoes and it feels like your hamstring is about to split in half.
Can you bend down and touch your toes? Should you even be performing that stretch?
Welcome to the WCT Stretching Series, where we answer the questions surrounding the ever so popular practice of stretching.
Sit back and enjoy the read.
Today's post is going to cover:
What Stretching Is and What Happens When You Stretch Your Muscles
Is Stretching Bad For You?
The Benefits of Stretching
The Difference Between Stretching for Mobility and Stretching for Flexibility
Is it Really Necessary to Stretch?
What Happens When You Stretch Your Muscles
So what is stretching?
Stretching is the process that occurs when you take your muscles and joints to their end range of motion and maintain that position in an effort to increase that particular range of motion.
When the muscle fibers are pulled to their full length, they send signals to the spinal cord to undergo a 'stretch reflex.'
This reflex causes the muscle to contract more forcefully than if there hadn't been an antecedent stretch.
This is what happens when you jump or squat. The muscles of your hips and hamstrings get stretched, resulting in a contraction reflex to propel you upwards.
By forcefully holding the position at the end range, the muscles will become accustomed to the lengthened position and decrease its signal to the spinal cord.
As you could imagine, the stretch reflex is a built-in mechanism that protects us from injury.
Is Stretching Bad For You?
People stretch for numerous reasons. Here are the most common reasons.
- It feels good
- It helps fix "tweaked" muscles
- It will prevent injuries
- It serves as an excellent warm up prior to exercise
Let's go over each one individually.
Stretching does feel good. But besides that, it is questionable and even unlikely that stretching does any of the other 3 bullet points.
Does Stretching Help Fix a Sore or Tweaked Muscle?
Stretching will not improve a sore or injured muscle. In fact, stretching can actually do the complete opposite and cause further damage to compromised muscle tissue.
When a muscle becomes pulled or strained, it contracts for a reason.
The same way we re-approximate the skin and almost every other organ during surgery, tissues needs to come together to repair themselves. Stretching a tweaked muscle can interrupt this healing process.
Does Stretching Prevent Injuries?
Stretching by itself does not prevent injuries. Injuries occur when your body experiences an external force while in a sub-optimal position.
Such as picking up a heavy object with poor spinal mechanics or pivoting on your knee when your joints aren't aligned properly.
No amount of stretching will change an unfortunate event such as these.
If you cannot achieve a desired position due to limitations in your mobility, then stretching can potentially help you prevent injuries. More on this later...
Should I Stretch Before Lifting/Running?
When people ask this question, they are generally referring to static stretching. The kind where you hold a fixed position for 20 seconds or so.
The most common examples are bringing your heel to your butt and holding this position to stretch your quads, or placing your outstretched leg on top of a ledge to stretch your hamstrings.
In short, there is no evidence that static stretching before physical activity is necessary.
In fact, some studies have shown that it can decrease a muscle's power production if done before a lifting session.
Instead, you could perform dynamic stretching, which we go over in A Simplistic 5-Minute Warm Up Routine To Keep You Limber.
So, stretching isn't necessarily bad for you- the problem is that we are using stretching for the wrong reasons.
Let's discuss what it's actually good for.
The Benefits of Stretching
When used correctly, stretching has plenty of benefits.
Stretching can improve your posture: Check out You Probably Have Bad Posture- Here's How to Tell to learn more.
Stretching can improve your flexibility: If you lack a specific end range of motion, stretching can help you gain an appreciable increase in flexibility
Stretching can decrease your risk of injury IF you have mobility issues: More on this later...
Stretching can promote relaxation: The breathing techniques that are necessary during stretching help you relieve stress and become relaxed.
You can incorporate it into a nightly ritual like the ones we discussed in 7 More Ways To Increase Deep Sleep [Even With A Busy Schedule]
When is The Best Time to Stretch?
If you are someone who absolutely loves static stretching, then keep on doing it. Just make sure that you are doing it at the right time.
The best time to perform static stretching is AFTER your workout, when your muscles and joints are already loose/warm or before bed.
Now we will go over who should and shouldn't stretch.
What is The Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility?
In order to determine if you need to stretch or not, we must discuss the difference between flexibility and mobility.
People often use the terms flexibility and mobility interchangeably. There is a difference.
Flexibility is the amount of passive range of motion you have
In other words, how much range of motion does that particular joint have when isolated. Imagine you are at a physical therapist's office, and they lay you flat on your back. They then bring one leg up all the way to your chest with your knee straight. This is your passive range of motion.
Mobility is the amount of active range of motion you have
In other words, how much range of motion do you have when you are using all of your muscles and joints in unison to achieve a certain position. How much of that passive range of motion can you actually use in the real world?
Using the same example as above, you may be able to bring your leg up to your chest passively at the therapist's office, but when you stand up and try to achieve the same position, you may be restricted by your back muscles or your hamstrings.
The limitations of your flexibility will be structural, while the limitations of your mobility may be neutral.
Therefore, depending on your restrictions, the treatment will be different.
Do I Need to Stretch?
So to answer the question to the blog's title:
Stretching is necessary if you do not have the mobility to achieve a desired end range of motion because you lack the flexibility to do it.
For example, you may not be able to achieve a full squat position, and it may be because you do not have adequate hip flexion on passive range of motion.
If you attempt to squat (or perform any other compound exercise) without adequate flexibility or mobility, you are significantly increasing your risk of injury! Check out How to Squat Correctly to see if you meet the mobility requirements of squatting.
On the other hand, if you do not have the mobility to achieve a desired end range of motion, but you have the flexibility to do it, then you need to work more on dynamic stretching or mobility drills to achieve those ranges of motion, rather than static stretching.
Therefore stretching every single joint in every single person is a horrible approach.
It is important to identify if there is an inability to achieve a certain range of motion due to flexibility issues so that we can individualize a stretching routine.
In the next article, we will go over how to determine if you have adequate mobility or not.
How often do you stretch? Do you stretch before or after your workout? Are you naturally flexible? Comment below and let us know.
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