Stretching – The Truth

There are a couple schools of thought relative to stretching. One school says “why,” and my school says because it helps alleviate joint pain, back pain, reduce muscle soreness, reduce stress, aid in workout recovery, loosen tight muscles, improve posture, increase functionality, increase range of motion in joints, and possibly help your social life. Got me?

You don’t need an hour a day, but you should stretch everyday. That does not mean a full blown hot yoga routine. It means a few short, effective stretches for; muscles you know are tight, muscles associated with those you know are tight, your calves, hamstrings and core. I include the latter three because; if your calves are tight, that contracture can cascade up through your hamstrings and into your low back. (A virtual show of hands here, who among you has some back pain?) Your core muscles are always in use, and are inclined to some tightness somewhere. It is a good idea to keep the core muscles flexible if for no other reason than eliminating some possible causes of back pain.

To better understand how a muscle functions, look at the basic physiology of stretching. (Use the links for further clarification.) Keep in mind that a muscle can be stretched to 1.5 times its resting length. For example, an 3 inch muscle can be effectively stretched to 4.5 inches. The stretching of a muscle fiber originates at the sarcomere, the smallest unit of contractile property in a muscle. As a muscle contracts, down in those sarcomeres, the area of between the thick and thin myofilaments (tiny protein threads) increases. This is why a muscle looks bigger when you “flex” it. Now, as a muscle stretches, the area between these tiny protein threads actually decreases allowing the muscle fiber to lengthen. It’s kind of like a balloon; stretch it, it gets longer and thinner. When you can get all these fibers lengthening together, you have an effectively stretched muscle. (proper credit to the brutally thorough Brad Appleton) The key to getting as many fibers as possible to stretch is relaxation of the muscle. There is a realignment of those muscle fibers when you stretch them. They are reset in a way, similar to how a chiropractor resets, or realigns your spine.

Before I discuss the “how to,” I need to mention my two cardinal rules:

1. Relax into and through your stretches. You must think of allowing a muscle to stretch, not forcing the stretch.

2. Never bounce during stretching. When you bounce during stretching you are triggering the stretch reflex. Your muscle recognizes the “abnormal” lengthening and attempts to protect itself by contracting, nullifying your attempt at a stretch.

The first step to stretching a muscle is to locate the muscle to be stretched. Easier said than done. I have listed a few sources below for reference so that you can get a visual of skeletal muscles and what their responsibilities are in terms of joint movement. A short cut to learning the anatomy is to examine which way a muscle moves when you are working it, say, doing a push up. You want to stretch your chest, and during a push up your arms move toward you. Stretching a muscle occurs when you move that relaxed muscle past its resting length in the opposite direction it moves when it’s working (bearing weight.) With that in mind you now know that to stretch the chest you move the arms away from it.

Next, find the area of zero tension, maximum relaxation of the muscle. The muscle must be unloaded, meaning, it is NOT bearing any weight. The worst example of this is when I see a runner stretching hamstrings with a leg up on a wall. Very inefficient in that the muscle he thinks he’s stretching is actually bearing some of his own body weight. He might feel a stretch there, and might be stretching the muscle somewhat, but there are other ways much more effective and less likely to cause an injury. One of the reason some folks don’t stretch is because they have gotten injured during stretching.

Step three is to locate the muscle’s resting length. Resting length is a muscle’s maximum isometric tension. Isometric meaning static contraction – no movement. When you get out of bed in the morning and raise both arms to a letter Y and down to a letter T, you are sort of reaching resting length in your chest and biceps. If you really “force” that movement, you are stretching those muscles. But you are stretching them past their resting length. To reach a muscle’s resting length, gently activate the muscle on its opposite side. For example, if you want to reach resting length in your chest, gently pull your shoulders back.

And now, the stretch: while applying slight, but increasing pressure against the resting muscle, relax, exhale, and allow the muscle to lengthen. Let that muscle go. You must relax during this phase and allow the muscle to stretch. A relaxed muscle will lengthen, it’s just up to you to fight the urge to force it to stretch. At the point when you feel you are about to experience pain, slowly back off of the stretch. That’s it, the muscle is stretched.

You never want to feel pain while stretching. You want to stretch a muscle to the point of, but not to pain. As you become more flexible your “threshold” and your range of motion will increase. You will be able to stretch farther without reaching the point of pain.

As you get more familiar with these steps you will stretch more effectively, and achieve more stretches in less time.

Keys to effective stretching:

Once you allow the muscle to lengthen, the stretch is over. Release and stretch again. 
Your muscles have no concept of time, the a stretch does not need to be held for a long time. If you do the technique properly, a muscle can be effectively stretched in 2-4 seconds. Do the 2-4 second stretch 2-4 times.

You want to feel the stretch over the full length of the muscle, not on the joint. For example, when you stretch your hamstrings you want to feel the stretch in the entire back of your thigh, not in back of your knee. Don’t force the stretch, allow the stretch, gradually.