Advice about stretching is bit like advice about nutrition: Confusing at the best of times, usually contradictory, and anything but consistent!
“Should I stretch before the workout? After the workout? Both?”
“How long should I hold a stretch? Should I stretch everyday?”
“Is there such a thing as too much stretching?”
“Does stretching even work anyway? I have been stretching for years and still can’t touch my toes!”
Different coaches will give you very different answers to the above questions…
There are some who say stretching is necessary to help avoid injuries. (But, of course, even if you stretch, if the load placed on a part of your body is greater than the capacity of that muscle or joint, injury is likely the result). The argument here is that if you’re able to improve your range of motion of a particular joint, then you’ll be able to tolerate more load on that joint, hence decreasing your chance of injury.
While improving the range of motion of a joint IS something we try to accomplish with most people who walk through our doors, it must be done in the right way. The rationale is that new range of motion is weak range of motion. For example, it's not a great idea to spend 30 minutes stretching your shoulders and then go try to max out on your Snatch. My methodology is that warm-ups are to restore normal functioning range of motion of your joints, and post-workout or home stretching is where you spend long amounts of time on certain areas. The recovery period of stretching allows your nervous system to 're-calibrate' these newfound positions.
This brings me to the other most common reason to stretch: It makes you more flexible. When we consider gymnasts and yogis, who are both known to stretch a lot and be very flexible, it seems obvious that stretching helps you improve your range of motion, but I've seen many VERY flexible people elicit poor form as to what would look like occurring from 'tight muscles.' On the other hand, I've seen some big dudes with VERY stiff hamstrings get into GREAT positions with no issue. Now there’s a whole other school of thought that questions the efficacy of stretching and what we are actually trying to accomplish.
One of these skeptics is strength and conditioning coach Charlie Reid.
In this blog (http://www.charliereidfitness.com/blog/why-do-you-want-to-stretch), he talks about thee reasons people tend to think they need to stretch:
- They feel tight
- They want to avoid injury
- They want to become more flexible
To the tightness argument, he says “Tightness may be less about the structural limitation and more about your perception.” He says that while stretching might help in the short term, it’s not a long term solution to making you less tight.
As for the avoiding injury argument, he denies it and offers better solutions to avoid injuries, such as honing in your movement mechanics and selecting proper progressions that reflect your fitness level.
Finally, as for the obvious stretching making you more flexible, he says it doesn’t. Or at least, not in a useful way. He does, however, acknowledge the ‘stretch tolerance’ concept.
The stretch tolerance principle says that the only way stretching makes you more flexible is by convincing your nervous system to become OK with certain range of motions. Your nervous system is designed to protect you, so if it feels threatened by a certain range of motion it will stop you from going there. So the idea here is that the more you stretch, the more your nervous systems starts to say to your body, “You’re good. You’re not under serious threat,” which then allows you to gain a little more range of motion. Often when we are warming up, especially for lets say heavy squats or snatches, I will talk about getting comfortable in those positions - allowing your nervous system to be happy with where you are. This couples the principle that if you never go in the actual position you want to attain, you'll never get there. So instead of isolated stretching of all your muscles you think are restricting your ability to get a better squat position, just spend more time into the bottom of your squat position and work on contracting muscles in that position to reset your nervous systems acknowledgement of your actual range of motion. A good exercise is light weight pause squats - perform 5 squats with a 5 second pause in the very bottom without sacrificing any pelvis or lumbar positioning. Use a weight heavy enough to 'help you' into a deep position, but light enough you're not worried about standing it back up so you can tell your nervous system that you're not being threatened and you can relax a bit of tension off those muscles.
But Reid says that even if your nervous system does start to chill out and give you a little more range of motion as you static stretch, that this new range of motion doesn’t translate into active movements you do at the gym or in life. In other words, you might be able to go a little deeper into the splits, but it ends there. It’s just flexibility for the sake of flexibility, as opposed to helping you in any practical way.
Check out this infographic below for more about what he has to say:
So where does this leave us? Again, it’s a bit like diet. There really is no one-size fits all approach. Often trial and error and using your body as a Guinea pig is the best approach. If you feel like doing a couch stretch after a workout helps you, then do it. Especially if you sit for as many hours as you sleep!
A great introduction to what Mobility really feels like, come try a KinStretch class with Dr. Steve Piper. Our next hosted class is on Tuesday August 28th @6:30pm. Members and non-members are welcome, $10 drop-in fee.
And even if static stretching after a workout isn’t doing what you hoped it did, there’s another reason to stretch: It can be relaxing and sometimes it just feels good!
Warm-Up well to feel good, Stretch and Mobilize great to feel better!
- Coach Terrence