Stretching – yay or nay!? Top Tips for Stretching
To stretch or not to stretch….. That is the question…..
The latest research into stretching is conflicting to say the least and what’s filtering down into public perception is downright confusing and sometimes just misses the point completely.
So is stretching bad for you?
Does stretching negatively affect performance?
Does stretching lead to increase in muscle length?
How do I stretch safely?
Stretching and Performance
As happens in most industries small studies with a fairly dramatic outcome get picked up by the media and blown out of all proportion. Headlines like ‘Reasons Not to Stretch’ (The New York Times) and ‘Why Stretching Might Be Bad For You’ (Medical Daily) for example meant that many people took home the message that stretching is bad, and you shouldn’t do it, full stop!
What the new research was actually suggesting was that static stretching (taking a muscle into a stretch and holding it) before an event, especially one involving explosive force or strength may inhibit performance and reduce muscular strength. Now this is probably an important factor if you’re on the elite end of the sporting spectrum, but the reduction is strength was only measured at 5% (at most) and that was when stretches were held for at least 90 seconds. For the average person any reduction in strength that small is not going to be noticeable. Which is something I try to explain to my clients, especially those of the sporting persuasion when I give them stretches as homework for their rehabilitation and they tell me they’ve heard that stretching is bad.
Stretching and Muscle Length
Something we’ve pretty much all grown up being taught is that if you stretch on a regular basis your muscles will get longer. Well that may not be true.
In recent years there has been lots of research into the role our brain and nervous system plays on our body systems. In the same way that scientists now know that pain is an output from the brain, it is now thought that perceived increases in muscle length, due to increased flexibility after static stretching is actually more about tolerance, how your brain reacts to the sensation of stretching. The fact you can stretch further after embarking on a flexibility training programme is not because there has been any permanent increase in muscle length but because your brain has decided it is safe to do so. This makes sense to me. If you never take a joint through it’s full range of motion, your brain is going to try to protect you from damaging yourself if you suddenly decide to perform a movement you’re not used to. Repeating that movement on a regular basis without damaging yourself would show your brain that the movement is safe and therefore allow greater range of movement (ROM).
However, another study suggest that a different type of stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (love saying that!) or PNF as it is more commonly known where you put the muscle on a stretch, then contract the same muscle against resistance, then relax the muscle and take it into a deeper stretch may lead to an increase in overall muscle length.
The general consensus is that a lot more research is needed!
My main argument is that it feels good and it’s something that we all do unconsciously from time to time. If I’ve been sitting down for too long or just had a long day I often find myself stretching out my body without thinking about it. Look at animals, while they don’t put themselves in positions and hold them, watch an animal after it’s been asleep and you’ll see it stretching out its body. While I’ll never know for sure, I’m pretty sure my dog does that because it feels good and it comes naturally to her and not because she thinks an increase in her flexibility will improve her quality of life!
The other reason to stretch is that we lead a very sedentary lifestyle. Even if you move around or exercise on a regular basis chances are you still spend a lot of time sitting down in the same position. Sitting at your desk, sitting in the car, on the bus or train and sitting in front of the TV after a hard day to unwind. The majority of us don’t take our joints through their full range of motion on a regular basis, and as discussed above this can lead to the brain not wanting to tolerate such movements. By stretching regularly you show the brain that it is safe to do so. This is even more important after injury or if you are in chronic pain because the tendency is, if something hurts you move it less. Moving less just leads to a further decrease in tolerance for that movement and a perpetuating cycle of decreased range of motion and therefore quality of life.
Stretching can benefit your mind as well as your body. Slow and focused stretching (think yoga) can help reduce anxiety, as well as lower blood pressure and breathing rate.
Tips for Stretching Safely
- Glide slowly and carefully into and out of the stretch. The movement into and out of the stretch is as important as the stretch itself.
- Only stretch to the point where you start to feel the stretch, a bit like the biting point of the clutch when you’re driving a car.
- Stretching should NOT be painful. Remember it’s about tolerance and if you take it to the point of pain your brain is going to want to protect against that.
- Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds (longer if you want to make the stretch more fascial).
- Repeat each stretch 3 times.
- Do it regularly! Like most things in life little and often is the key.
- Don’t bounce! Jane Fonda style ballistic stretching has been shown to increase the chance of injury, so unless you’re a professional athlete avoid it.
- Stretch after exercise. While there is no evidence that stretching after exercise prevents DOMS (delayed-onset-muscle-soreness) it feels good and is a great way to help your body cool down.
Happy Stretching Everyone!
Jemma Fordham is a clinical massage therapist who specialises in the treatment of chronic pain conditions based in Brighton. She works with her clients to help facilitate their bodies own healing through bodywork, exercise and education.
If you would like more information or need to book an appointment please call 07843 666 806 or use this form.