The topic of stretching is something that’s very under-researched in my opinion.
Everybody says stretching is good for you, most people don’t practice it, and the ones that stretch are actually exaggerating or just doing some nonsense moves they don’t even understand.
Stretching is not the black and white reasoning we see all the time. We have to first ask ourselves some specific questions:
- What do you want to achieve with stretching?
- What are your needs as a normal human being?
- How much time should you put into stretching?
- What type of stretching would benefir YOU the most?
Today you’ll discover how, when and what to stretch the S.M.A.R.T way.
Why Should You Even Stretch
The reason why you should stretch is simple: to be able to perform the moves you need to perform with maximum safety and full range of motion.
You can also think about stretching as a good way to improve your posture.
I am one of the best examples of guys sitting a lot in the front of their computer (but I take care of my posture).
So this prolonged sitting usually causes your hip flexors to shorten and leads to excessive anterior pelvic tilt.
One example is your hip flexors:
Due to too much sitting, these muscles shorten which usually leads to excessive anterior pelvic tilt which looks like this:
This can cause severe problems with your lower back. So stretching the hip flexors will help with this case. And this is just an example.
What Stretches Do
Before I talk about stretching, you have to understand:
The difference between muscle shortness and muscle tightness
Muscle shortness is actual shortness is a structural issue. The muscle fibers themselves have changed their structure. They became shortened.
That can be because an injury or condition in which your muscles get shortened due to an inability to move them through the full range of motion.
For example, your biceps muscle can get shortened if you have an arm injury that requires you to keep your arm flexed for months.
In that case, it’s probably good to stretch in order to lenghten the muscle tissue. But it takes a lot of time.
At the other side of the equation is “muscle tightness”
It is dictated by your nervous system.
People often mistake tightness for shortness.
They think that the muscle has actually changed and it became tight when in fact it’s their nervous system that’s sending a signal to that muscle to have an increased tone.
For example, you can have your hamstrings feel tight but you stretch them every day, then there’s nothing wrong with your muscle structure.
Your nervous system is making that area tight.
Should You Stretch A Tight Muscle?
Static stretching is a popular modality to stretch a muscle.
What we know?
Static stretching can help you create a short-term improvement in flexibility.
It seems that this happens as we increase the tolerance to the actual stretch instead of really increasing the muscle cell density.
People say you have to maintain a stretch for 30-60-90 or more seconds to increase your flexibility.
The thing is… you already have the mobility to perform more flexible movements that you are currently “able”. It’s there. But your nervous system doesn’t let you.
Your nervous system sees the improved range of motion as a treat and that’s why it makes the muscles tighter.
Stretching helps with making your nervous system to stop perceiving the new range of motion as a threat.
Do you need the increased tolerance to stretch?
What Research Has To Say About Static Stretching
There’s evidence that you can get a slight decrease in performance of 2-4% with stretches that last 60 seconds or more.
But in these studies, people that stretched went right into the movement.
It’s not what usually happens inside a gym.
You will probably have a dynamic warm-up, a normal warm-up routine with weights, and these will probably mitigate most negative downsides of extended stretching.
There’s also a study (1) that specifically tests static and dynamic stretching followed by a normal sport specific warm-up.
In this study, researchers split 13 football players into 2 groups. One group was assigned static and the other one dynamic stretching.
Both groups stretched for 15 minutes.
The static stretching group saw a decrease in performance and power output.
But here’s the catch.
These people experienced a decrease in performance only when they were made to exercise right after stretching.
But when they repeated the experiment but after the stretching movements, the athletes were let to do some sport specific warm-ups (think about your weight lifting warm-up sets), no negative effects were seen.
Can stretching increase performance?
It seems that longer muscle lengths for movements that require a greater range of movement, it seems it can increase the power output.
Does stretching protect your from injury?
It seems it doesn’t.
It does not prevent injury.
But an excess of mobility named hypermobility seems to have an increased risk of injury.
It seems too much range of motion comes with a higher risk of injury.
The main scope of stretching in my eyes is to help you get in the position of the lifts you will perform as safely as possible.
And also work in increasing strength in the new found range of motion.
It seems eccentric loading can be a good method of stretching to get in a new range of motion and also create strength through out the entire range.
So use static stretching just to help you get into an optimal position for your workout and specific movements you’ll do for that day.
Adding load to a stretch to get a quick gain in flexibility and range of motion but also build strength to that new range of motion is the best way to stretch.
How To Program Your Stretching
- Start stretching until you reach a point where you feel light tension in the muscle you’re stretching
- Hold that position as much as it requires so your muscles relax. It doesn’t matter if it takes 10 or 90 seconds until they relax. Just keep it there. Don’t go more than that
- After your muscles relax, stretch further.
- Repeat step 2
- When you can’t make any improvements without bending other muscle groups or getting help from bending at your joints, stop.
Experimenting with stretching, I set up a routine that targets the most problematic areas that usually require a stretch.
- Taylor KL1, Sheppard JM, Lee H, Plummer N. Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sport specific warm-up component. J Sci Med Sport. 2009 Nov;12(6):657-61. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2008.04.004. Epub 2008 Sep 3.