Anyone who’s been at the gym for more than a day as probably heard the phrase “you need to stretch”.
Sore muscles? You need to stretch more.
Limited range of motion? You need to stretch more.
Eating too much junk food? You need to stretch more.
Okay, the last one was just me messing around, but you get the point!
In the fitness world there is so much emphasis put on stretching when it comes to a number of different issues, but the problem is that stretching (in the traditional sense) isn’t the most effective way to improve how the body moves and recovers. In fact, it might be, dare I say, slightly overrated? Seems like blasphemy for some one to say stretching isn’t super important but there are more effective ways to increase our bodies movement patterns rather than just holding one muscle in one position for a specific period of time.
Before I go on, I should state that stretching is almost a blanket statement and actually includes a number of different styles of stretching which can be useful. What I’m talking about today is the traditional form of stretching most of us think of when we hear this term, which is static stretching.
Static stretching is a non-moving elongation of the muscle for a specific time, think of the classic quad stretch where we grab our foot behind our body and pull up, stretching the quad muscles (front of the leg).
There are other forms of stretching like PNF Stretching (Stretch-relax-contract) and Dynamic Stretching (moving joint through range of motion) which are much more effective than static stretching for impacting the body and range of motion.
So, let’s dive into a few common misconceptions about static stretching
Stretching helps with muscle soreness
Muscle soreness in the body is commonly causes by delayed onset muscle soreness after a workout. This is the process in which muscles have been stimulated to the point where they will have micro tears, in which the body has to recover from. This will be more common in new lifters, as their body will need to adapt to this stimulation much more than someone who has been lifting for a while.
When it comes to this type of soreness, the important part is to continuously get blood flow and nutrients to the sore area to increase recovery. Eating nutrient dense, protein-based meals, drinking more water, sleeping, and moving the sore area are all going to be beneficial, but stretching wont’ be as effective. As we perform static stretches on these muscle fibers, it doesn’t promote blood flow to the area (as there is no movement), and it only elongates the muscles that already have micro-tears for a longer period of time.
The better solution is to do Myofascial release (foam rolling), and dynamic stretches to alleviate the pain more effectively.
Stretch out before and after your workout
Now stretching before your workout has become less and less prevalent with more people becoming educated on why we shouldn’t, but as a reminder, stretching out the muscle actually makes the muscle weaker as a whole. Think of what happens when you stretch an elastic band, the longer you stretch it, the more susceptible to breaking the band becomes. As you stretch out the muscle, the muscle itself becomes weaker and more prone to injury. The better alternative here is Dynamic Stretching, with maybe a bit of Myofascial release.
We’ve mentioned it already but stretching after the workout can cause temporary relief of a sore muscle, but it’s not an effective way to alleviate pain. Doing a cool down to get rid of metabolic waste and promote recovery would be more effective.
Stretching will get rid of muscle knots
This might be one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to stretching. Unfortunately static stretching is more of a temporary relief.
Think of it like you have a knot on a string, does it help to just pull the string even more? The string lengthens, but the knot gets pulled tighter, smaller, and doesn’t disappear. So while the string is almost back to it’s original length, the knot is still there which will effect the ability of that string. It’s the same thing with our muscles. As tension fills the muscle and a knot forms (usually caused by increased tension, and muscles contracting even at rest) we now begin to have a movement pattern issue that can arise.
If we have knots in our muscles, our muscle can’t fully lengthen, which means we cannot go through proper range of motion, as the muscle will always have that tightness. This can also cause our joints to shift over time as the muscle tension pulls these areas out of line if not properly managed. So once we get to this point there are plenty of mobility-based exercises we need to do.
First off, we need to get rid of the knot so that our muscles can return back to regular length. This can be done through Myofascial release, Acupuncture, Intramuscular Stimulation or going for a massage. These treatments need to be regular, even if we feel like the issue has gone away. At this point, stretching does have some benefits, which I will touch on below.
Stretching will fix my mobility issues
Now, if you’ve removed the knots from your muscles, but there is still pain, that could be a good sign of some movement pattern issues, or joints not moving through the proper range of motion. To improve this issue, incorporating versions of PNF stretching, or resisted stretching can be highly beneficial. By contracting the muscle, holding your position, then actively focusing on relaxing that area, it allows the muscle to learn to relax, and lengthen at a much high efficiency then static stretching by engaging the neuromuscular side of our body.
To help improve movement patterns, engage muscles properly, or get joints back into place, we should incorporate bands and resistance to our routine as well.
By having an external force pulling our joints back into alignment, while we lengthen the muscle can actually improve our range of motion. For example, if we sit all day, our pelvis develops an anterior tilt, which can cause movement pattern issues for squats (along with many other issues we don’t need to go into now). So, instead of just doing a standard hip flexor stretch, if we include a band wrapped around our upper thigh (anchored behind us) and then get into the position, we now have a force that will be actively pulling our hip back into a proper position. Again, this isn’t going to happen the first time, but the more we can do it the more the joint will return to it’s proper position.
Alternatively, we can also use resistance to improve our range of motion as well. If we want to work on squatting deeper, then getting into a deep squat while holding a kettlebell can get the body deeper into the position to help us stretch the muscles in a way that will actually be effective to the movements we are trying to accomplish, opposed to just individualized muscle groups.
One last word about stretching…
There is a place for stretching in our fitness and health routine, but it shouldn’t be a blanket statement made to cover up other mobility or movement issues. Stretching can temporarily lengthen the muscle tissue out, to help us get into proper range of motion before performing an exercise, which obviously has huge benefits to our workout. Stretching also helps relax the muscle as well, so if we are feeling a lot of tension, stress, or even anxiety, stretching has been shown to calm the body down, and relax the muscle tissue as well.
When stretching, keep it short and effective. Primarily for a fitness sense, focus more on the movement you are looking to improve, not just an area you feel is tight. We are one big chain of muscle after all, so one misfiring muscle can cause the whole body to be out of wack. Aim for 15-30 second holds, and repeat 3-5 times, but don’t spend hours on just stretching… a loose muscle can be a weak muscle as well.
– Stretching will temporarily lengthen your muscles, but the body needs to correct movement patterns before issue will go away
– Stretching can weaken a muscle, so do not over do it pre-workout
– Stretching will only relieve muscle soreness temporally, keep blood flow moving to that body part for full recovery
– Utilize PF Stretching, Fascial Release, and Resisted/Band Stretches for better results
CSEP – Certified Personal Trainer
RK Athletics – https://linktr.ee/RK_Athletics