To Stretch or not to Stretch- that is the question…

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Static stretching gets such a bad rap. Maybe you’ve heard that static stretching pre-exercise slows force production.  (In young males on the knee extension machine, but I will leave my feelings about scientific subject selection for another post.)  You may have also heard that pre-session stretching has no change on injury rates.  Or even that prolonged static stretching makes no difference in flexibility over time.  The evidence is in & it has found that static stretching is ineffective on all accounts.  Or is it?  Then why does it feel so good?  And why do some people- runners, yogis, dancers- still stretch in what looks like traditionally static positions?

Stretching should NOT be an automatic one-size-fits-all time filler in your workout, but it still can definitively have a big benefit to you if used correctly. The difference between the two choices is intention- find out what static stretching is good for & what it’s not good for- and use that to your body’s advantage.

 

 ~ Stepping on the brake~

I picture static stretching as stepping on a brake to the muscle you are stretching.  Yes, it slows down force production, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  A study of college-aged males proved stretching the Quad before a knee extension machine strength test significantly reduced the power output of the Quadriceps- yes, I agree with this conclusion. But I could bet money that most of these young males have a hard time reaching full knee straight while locked into a seated position because of flexibility issues in their HAMSTRINGS.  So what if instead of stretching the quads, those athletes stretched their hamstrings with the goal of making knee extension while seated more fluid & flexible? And perhaps did some activation techniques for the Quad immediately after?  That way, you are slowing down the muscle fighting your efforts, while revving up the muscles you want to exert the most force.  In this way, you can use the “braking” motion of a static stretch to your advantage, no?

As a real-world example: if you overuse your calves for push off when running, try stretching your calves in a static stretch before a run.  It can slow down your natural inclination to use your calves, thereby easing use of other muscles & improving your biomechanics.  Another real-world use is if you are overly quad dominant and you are trying to alter your squat form to recruit more hamstrings & glutes.  Why not stretch the quads (in isolation) prior to a training session to slow them down and make the other muscles more easily active in comparison?  You may have a harder time lifting in the short term (when you are still trying to use the slowed quads.)  But if you continue to focus on posterior chain effort, it can help you be successful in changing a very stubborn & very common biomechanic.

 

~More range? Only in the short term~

Static stretching can also improve joint ROM, but only in the short term. This increased range is useful as long as you prepare to activate them immediately after traditional stretching. I like stretching the hamstrings pre-run in order to improve stride length. But I am aware that the longer you stretch, the sleepier/slower and “deactivated” you are making that muscle. I don’t hold these stretches until all tension is gone, only until movement is a little freer, and that’s what I suggest to patients as well. While I generally recommend 15-20s per stretch for everyone, for the slower runner (10-13 minute mile) I recommend alternating but repeating the stretch for more repetitions; for the faster runner (6-10 min mile) I might only recommend one or two stretches per side so as not to put too much brake on their muscle. The slower runner needs slow & steady muscles, the faster runner needs fast & responsive muscles.  The overall effect is increased volume of hamstring stretching for the slower runner, minimal stretch for the faster one.

Following up static stretches with progressively shorter holds for all athletes is equally important to activate a quick response in the new range. You want your body to be able to get into the loose position easily, but also quickly.  If you are holding the static stretch for 20s on the first two reps, try then holding only for 10s for another 2 reps to speed up your body’s relaxation response.  Then move to dynamic mobility drills after these stretches to move the muscles in common movement patterns.  The pre-workout goal is long & loose, but strong & quick.

    ~Stretching after exercise~

The general population has given up on pre-workout stretching, but wonders if it’s best to wait until immediately after exercise, when you are “already warmed up”.  When questioned about their why, it’s usually in order to “gain flexibility” or in order to prevent soreness.

While I do incorporate the stretch “when warmed up” philosophy in my practice with patients, it is only when the primary goal of the session is to regain lost range of motion or when their range is severely limited.  For people with normal ranges of flexibility who want to get stronger, it is counterproductive to stretch immediately after exercise.  If your session’s goal is strength, use all of your time towards your primary goal that day- strengthening.  Spend those extra 15 minutes doing another round of pushups or squats, or both.

It’s still not a great idea to go from high intensity to full stop (& sitting at the computer the rest of the day) though.  Try some deep breathing in the bent over position (child’s pose for instance) to slow down your breathing and CNS, returning your body and mindset to a calmer state.  Walk slowly to the locker room, have a drink of water and think peaceful & relaxed.  Take your time getting to the office.  If you are coming off the field, or after a race, standing knee to chest and modified downdogs holding into a gate works well, but be sure to breathe deeply, and try to slow your talking and thinking. I’ve very rarely recommended stretching after exercise, and when I have it’s been for patients who have had severe difficulty returning to a normal muscle state after a workout- maybe one or two times in my entire career.  If you notice body tension that cannot relax for days after every workout, try static stretching after the breathing technique and see if that helps, but know that this is the rare case.

 

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But what about stretching to prevent muscle soreness? In my 15yrs as a fitness professional, I have yet to notice a difference in onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when stretching immediately after exercise.  Why not save the static stretch for DOMS for when it begins to set in- usually later that night or the next day?  That has helps a bit in reducing the intensity of muscle soreness and maintaining range of motion after overdoing it. You can also use static stretching once DOMS has hit its maximum discomfort, performing the stretch slowly and lightly,  followed by light effort of the same exercise that made you sore.  Now that’s the REAL recipe for minimizing soreness. You’re welcome.

 

~Already warmed up~

If you are stretching to get more range of motion, best to spend a separate session dedicated to flexibility.  You can do this with a yoga class or self directed yoga positions or mobility drills. Warm up, and stay at a much lighter intensity needed to work on range and make this the goal of the whole session.  You are still moving, but at a much lower intensity.  It may feel weird that you’re not “doing anything” or “fat burning” that session, but know that you can’t do everything in one session. If you separate the two goals (strength & flexibility) into 2 different sessions, you can have a clear intention for each one & be more successful all around.  Plus you get to call the flexibility session by a cool name, “Recovery Day.”  Boy, do I love a cool marketing strategy.

 

~In Summary~

The “When and What” of Stretching:

  1. Before exercise:  Try a short period of static stretches to the muscles you want to slow down or improve length in, followed by dynamic or ballistic stretches to activate quick recoil of those muscles prior to exercise.  Think “Long & loose, but strong & quick”
  2. After exercise: try to slow down mentally and physically.  This is best accomplished with deep breathing & bent over positions.
  3. For Muscle soreness: try light static stretching at the initial onset of DOMS, and static stretching followed by light exercise once the muscle soreness has reached its peak.
  4. To improve overall flexibility: best to dedicate an entire session to “stretching”.  Think active mobility drills and yoga positions for the most effective way to gain mobility. Pay attention to what positions you’re trying to get into, where you are feeling the stretch and actually “try”.  Don’t just lay there and talk or think about other things- mobility requires effort too.
  5. The common goal: No matter where you are on the athletic scale, the goal is to ramp up and ramp down mind & muscle excitation- some people can use a quick ramp up or down, some people need longer time to focus on the optimal energy state.  Notice where you are pre, post & during your chosen exercise and modify accordingly.

 

~Knowledge, Body Awareness and Intention are the best methods for physical success~

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