If you’re anything like me, stretching falls last on your list of gym activities… if it even makes the list (not usually). But, as mentioned a few weeks ago (in this post), I was making a conscious effort to include stretching in my training plan. Have I been perfectly compliant with this goal? Not so much… but I’m better than I was! Progress, not perfection, right? Either way, it’s happening more frequently than it used to (easy when previous level was a zero). For those of you who are skipping this part of a training plan, or are doing it without really knowing why, this post is for you.
What happens when you don’t stretch? Not much, right away. However, over time you may start to feel minor aches and pains more often, then those minor irritations suddenly turn into something worse and you find yourself laid up on the couch recovering.
Myth or Fact – stretching will help alleviate post training soreness (delayed onset muscle soreness)? Myth. Research hasn’t found any evidence that stretching will help reduce or stop that muscle pain you feel for 48ish hours post-training. Why? Weight training essentially breaks down the muscle fibres, tearing them apart. When they rebuild themselves (as you rest that body part), they grow stronger and bigger. Stretching can’t erase the damage you’ve done to the muscle fibres. It might feel great to stretch, but it’s not going to stop the pain from occurring. Embrace the (good) pain – it means you’re getting stronger!
So, if it doesn’t help with recovery, why bother wasting time stretching? Stretching has other benefits which are just as important:
- Improve flexibility and range of motion. Over time, consistent stretching will lead to increased flexibility as well as improved range of motion in a joint. These factors can make daily tasks easier as well as improve your performance in the gym! So many of us have incredibly tight hip flexors (thanks to the 10+ hours a day we spend sitting). Tight hip flexors can impact pretty much any activity you try to do – squats, lunges, running, climbing, etc.
- Prevent injury. This factor feeds off #1. With an improved range of motion, you’re less likely to suffer an injury at that site. Slightly roll your ankle? Tweak your shoulder doing overhead presses? With a good range of motion, you can easily walk away from these situations without lingering pain. However, the old thought that stretching before a workout will keep you safe has been disproven by many studies. The act of stretching can improve your range of motion, which may help prevent an injury in the future.
- Improved blood flow and tissue expansion. By sending blood to the muscle you can help speed up recovery (but not to the point that you’ll avoid all pain). Also, this can help muscle growth by stretching out the fibres (known as fascia), making room for the muscle to grow larger – sounds good to me!
Did you know some stretching is involuntary? Think of when you first get up in the morning and stretch without even thinking about it. Or, when you yawn, how often you also stretch out your arms, opening your chest up? It’s an act done by both humans and animals.
If you’re going to do it, do it properly and safely… just like anything else in life 😉 Keep the following tips in mind when stretching:
- Stretch to the point you can feel it, but not to the point of pain
- Don’t bounce, move smoothly to different stretches
- Target your activity – if you’ve been for a run, be sure to focus on your legs more than your upper body
- Hold it for about 30 – 60 seconds
- Keep breathing
- Be consistent! One stretch session a month isn’t going to yield any benefits, so be sure to include it consistently in your plan!
Passive vs. Dynamic
Passive stretching (holding a static position in which the muscle is under tension) is the most common form of stretching, but doesn’t help you warm up for activity. Dynamic stretching can be incorporated as a warm-up activity by putting your body through motions it’ll be doing in your activity. Be sure to stick to a comfortable range of motion when doing dynamic stretches, as the movements used are usually done quickly. These moves can help increase body temperature and really get the blood flowing to the targeted body part – all good things for a warm-up. An example of dynamic stretching would be high kicks to loosen up your hips and stretch your hamstrings, glutes, and even your lower back.
Now, I’ll admit that I need to follow my own advice here and get back on track with this goal. In my defense, I stretch frequently throughout my workouts, in an effort to get the blood flowing and open up the muscle for more work and growth. Plus, it feels good! Happy training (and stretching)!