It’s amazing how much controversy surrounds this topic. Here is my humble opinion about what I consider effective “stretching.” Begin by considering the purpose of your stretch. Are you:
- warming up a muscle for activity?
- stretching to gain flexibility/mobility?
- trying to release tension or pain? (really important point)
Each of these objectives may be best served with a different stretching technique. Here, I’m using the word “stretching” very loosely. The following are my experiences.
Stretching as a Warm-up
We’ve all heard it before: “stretch before working out or a run.” But what does that actually mean? As I mentioned in a previous post, dynamic stretching is quite a powerful technique for pushing blood to the muscles and getting them ready for activity. This minimizes the potential for injury, increases oxygen availability, and improves muscle efficiency. With that said, the operative word is dynamic; as in there should be small movements associated with the stretch. Save the static stretching (holding a position at your flexibility limit) for after the workout… unless your goal is to compromise power output, then static stretch before our work out, but then why are you lifting in the first place? I’m rambling. Do you follow?
OK! So we’re dynamically stretching before a workout. Great! Now STOP. Take inventory of how you’ve been “dynamically” stretching. There’s two ways to look at this. First, is the whole body warm up. These types of dynamic stretches are great to wake up the nervous system, and increase blood flow and heart rate (for more information and examples, see this article). The other is targeted dynamic stretching where you are isolating one or a group of muscles. Here ask yourself, are you taking small micro bounces at the edge of your flexibility or are you taking a larger range of motion and bigger bounces?
Stretching for Flexibility and Mobility
We’ve already talked about how static stretching should come after your workout. It’s also a great option on your rest days after you’ve warmed up. Holding a posture at the edge of your range of motion (ROM) allows the nervous system, muscle, and connective tissue to “soften” or ease into the posture. This is not as simple as it sounds. To do this, you must (1) be in a “comfortable enough” position to stay in it for a while, and (2) stay long enough for all the parts to relax. What we can all learn from yoga is that pushing harder and harder at the edge of your perceived flexibility will only make your muscles tense up more. Instead, take slower breaths, relax into the stretch and your nervous system will also relax allowing for greater ROM.
Strapped for time? No problem. Modern sports medicine has your back. If you want to increase ROM quickly, try proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. This type of stretch, contract, release, and stretch model “tricks” the nervous system to letting go a little more each round. The immediate results are nothing short of wizardry. Here, again, we see just how much of your flexibility is held in the nervous system and the mind. By tricking the system, we can gain some ROM almost immediately, even if the effects are only temporary. However, when used as a routine part of a stretching or rehabilitation regimen, PNF has been known to dramatically improve flexibility.
Stretching to Alleviate Soreness or Pain
First thing first: if you are experiencing persistent and unusual pain that is not muscle soreness, SEE A DOCTOR. You may have injured something in which case stretching won’t do a damn thing for you. In fact, over stretching areas of inflammation will only increase blood flow to that area, thereby exacerbating the problem. Bottom line: no blog (mine or otherwise) can substitute sound medical advice.
If you’re still reading, I’ll assume there is nothing medically wrong with you :-). Good job! Read on.
Say that you got through a gnarly benchmark workout or some grindy MetCon that had you begging for mercy. Phew! Then the next day comes and you’re in agony. Do you stretch? Do you workout? Do you throw caution to the wind, eat a giant box of cheezits and drink beer? All valid questions. Post-workout muscle soreness actually stems from micro tears in the muscle tissue. Stretching will not do much alleviate the sore sensation. However, stretching will help the muscle loosen up and return to its natural length and softness. For sore muscles, it’s actually helpful to do a combination of warmup workout, foam rolling and hot spot massages, and then stretching. This combination is a powerful tool to reduce soreness and speed up recovery.
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