Before we really dive into this topic, lets first define stretching, examine the different types, and explain some of the benefits of the technique. Stretching, is an attempt to increase a particular muscle’s length so that we can attain new positions or increase range of motion in movement. Every time we move we are stretching some muscles and contracting or shortening others whether we realize it or not. Next, we can classify stretching into 2 general categories: Passive and Active. Passive stretching or aka static stretching, is where we stretch a muscle to its limit and then hold that position while relying on some object (partner, wall, machine, weight etc.) to do so. Active stretching involves using the force or momentum from one muscle to stretch another. An example would be squeezing your butt while in a standing position to stretch and lengthen the front of your hip. This technique really becomes undermined in movement, and is extremely valuable in terms of efficiency in training. The beauty is that we can simultaneously improve our flexibility and focus on other areas of our development. More on this later. Now that we have briefly defined what stretching is, lets identify some of the key benefits of the technique below.
Stretching plays the biggest role in the recovery department. After we crush our body through an intense workout, the issue then becomes how quickly can we restore our structure back to its original state prior to the next workout? Well, aside from adequate and sound sleep, being generally lazy, light training, and solid nutrition, stretching techniques really help matters. Below is a small list of things that occur when we stretch our muscle tissue that facilitates the recovery process afterwards.
-1 Increases Androgen Receptor Sensitivity
-2 Increases local metabolism
-3 Increases circulation and opens up our blood vessels
I first heard of #1 from Dr. Charlie Weingroff (see references) about 2 years ago.1 When we place our muscles on stretch, the small sites where androgens (testosterone, etc.), which are hormones responsible for signaling muscle rebuilding, begin to become more sensitive and accepting of the actual hormones. This increases signaling, we can attach more hormones, shuttle in more nutrients, and we heal sooner.
At the same time this increases all of the metabolic activity that is occuring around that damaged area which promotes faster healing. Enzymes, sugar, protein, and more attack the site with intensity trying to bring the body back to normal as soon as possible, much like how construction workers strive to build a structure before a deadline. Lastly, stretching not only affects the muscles but the little capillaries or vessels that are intertwined through them. These begin to open up so everything we just discussed can get transported much more quickly.
I think it is no secret at this point that stretching helps prevent injury and potentially assists in treating ailments. As far as prevention is concerned, if a tissue is too tight, everything I just mentioned is lessened to a degree, and the odds of suffering a tissue tear increases as a result. If we go to apply a pull or stretch to a muscle and it does not budge, then there is a lot more pressure being applied to the muscle. Factor this with hundreds upon hundreds of these pull efforts and you can imagine how much more stress is placed on the tissue over time. This is known as Internal Resistance in the body. Another way to look at it is when someone punches another in the face. If the individual getting hit rolls with the punch, much of the punching force will be dissipated and rolls off the face. However, if he resists then the impact to the face will be far greater and damage will be greater.
The last primary benefit of stretching is for performance enhancement purposes. Please keep in mind that stretching a muscle absolutely pales in comparison to the benefit other types of training have on performance (strength, speed, power), yet society never portrays it this way. I think its another easy way out or quick fix promotional strategy. Stretching is like a door that opens and introduces the capacity to develop these skills better. Keeping your muscles and other tissues moderately flexible will allow for much more explosive motions which will enhance performance.
Now that we’ve examined some of the confirmed benefits of flexibility training, lets look at how it can hinder performance as well. Below I will list 5 downfalls of stretching too much.
#1-Limits of flexibility
If you analyze the majority of human movements you will notice, that all of these movements never really challenge our movement limit or “Limit of Flexibility.” I was first introduced to this concept by Kelly Baggett ( see references).2 Too help bring this into perspective, have you every witnessed someone who literally could not throw a baseball because they were not flexible enough? No. Have you ever witnessed someone who could not jump up for a rebound because they were too inflexible? No. Or have you ever met an individual who could not perform a sprint because they were too inflexible? Never. Its because nearly every pattern does not even come close to challenging our flexibility, yet so much focus is placed on being more flexible. Stretching then can become a potential waste of time. If we already have enough flexibility to perform all motions, then why do we need to keep stretching? The answer is we do not. Just remember that if you can perform the movement, your flexibility is sufficient, and your focus should be placed in other areas to further express that movement better or prevent injury.
The next concept may be the most influential in attempting to limit someone’s flexibility. LTR is an acronym for “Length-Tension Relationship” in movement science. “There is an optimum length at which a muscle when stimulated, can exert maximum tension. This length varies somewhat according to both the muscle’s structure and its function but, as a general rule, it is slightly greater than the resting length of the muscle. Lengths that are greater or less produce less tension.”3 In other words, if we stretch a muscle too little we cannot generate as much strength or power, and vice versa. A classic example of this principle at work can be seen when a basketball player goes to jump his highest to perform a highlight reel dunk. As he approaches the basket he will drop into a squat, and when he does freeze the video. You’ll notice that his hips will sit slightly higher than his knees even though he has the ability to squat well below his knees near his ankles. This is the LTR at work. If he were to sit too low he would not be able to perform his vertical transition nearly as well. If you attempt to be too flexible with your movement you will not be as powerful. Period!!! The common counterpoint I receive here is what about gymnastics? These athletes are arguably very powerful and extremely flexible. I say arguably, because I view it on a large scale. Are they as explosive as sprinters, footbally players, olympic lifters, and other verified athletes? I’m not sure. We would need to assess their vertical jump abilities and speed levels too know for certain. What I do know is that when we witness an explosive action demonstrated from a gymast they are abiding by the LTR always. Whether it’s hauling ass down the runway to a springboard, launching off the bouncy platform in the floor exercise, or what have you, they are executing very limited range motions, in a very explosive fashion to explode their bodies. It’s only after all of this that they pause and then showcase their elite flexibility. Is it necessary for them to do this though too perform better? Absolutely not. People for whatever reason are enamored by this and it raises judges scores, I suppose because it is unique.
The next reason why we should not stretch too much is because of the relaxation we create in our muscles. I’m mainly referring to static stretching here, although active stretching too much can be bad for reasons I will discuss later. In my first released product: “The Southrac Speed School Warm-up Manual” @ www.renoathletictraining.com, I discuss and provide scientific studies which illustrate the negative impact static stretching prior to intense activity can have on performance. The particular study I reference showed a 5-30% decrease in movement performance following brief static stretches. For this reason alone, we active stretch as part of the warm-up to prepare the body properly to perform at a high level. The last thing we want to be if we want to go throw around a bunch of iron, blaze down the track, or jump out of the gym is be relaxed. Our muscles need to be tight and active so that we deliver more energy into our motions. There are instances where relaxation can be beneficial, but all of these circumstances occur outside of intense training. Moreover, reports show that we only need too stretch a lot low volumes to receive a lot of benefit. Here is one. Porter et al. (2202) performed a completely randomized trial with almost 100 subjects testing how much stretching was needed too improve flexibility. The results showed that only 5 sets of 20 second holds, 2 times per day improved flexibility markedly in the Achilles Tendon. 4 That is not much at all, yet you see one hour classes that exclusively focus on flexibility development. This is bad for performance and that is time that could be spent working on worthwhile things and it’s too easy to really accomplish anything, except for rehabilitation scenario’s. This prescription or perhaps even less would limit the amount of time the muscle spends relaxing which can only help performance.
The fourth downfall is muscle-tendon stiffness. One of the key characteristics of tremendous athletes is a moderate degree of muscle-tendon stiffness. This feature of the body supports everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph and adds one more. I mentioned this in the manual as well, but staying stiff during exercise helps to increase joint stability, which is a strong indicator of injury risk, and also allows for better energy transfer throughout the body. Research images of olympic sprinters and some of the fastest NFL combine athletes and look at their body and facial expressions, and compare that with a marionette’s appearance. Extremes help provide perspective, and these two represent 2 obvious extremes. The marionette is the loose and relaxed example, while the athlete portrays the one who represents the high muscle-tendon stiffness. Obviously, the latter is better and is a common trend in the most athletic.
Ironically, the last downfall is increased injury risk. At the beginning of the article I mentioned all of the benefits which included decreased injury risk, but too much of a good thing can be bad, and stretching is definitely no exception.
Your body really does not like this!
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Extreme contortionist, or the more mild “Congenital Laxity” condition places a tremendous amount of joint and muscular stress on the body. Check out this article from Worldclass Performance Coach Eric Cressey, where he supports this position (see references).5 Anecdotally, I’ve worked with about a half dozen former ballet dancers, and all of these ladies had some serious structural abnormalities, more surgeries, as many injuries as anyone I’ve ever seen, and serious muscle imbalances too boot. I suppose muscle imbalances could be voided if the degree of stretching was equal all over the body, instead of concentrating on one area (e.i. hamstrings), but overstretching can only be bad. If we continuously try to stretch a muscle to its limits and beyond eventually it will tear, or bad things will happen on the other side of the joint. I see it too often, and its easily preventable.
I alluded to this in the beginning, but often times we are improving flexibility as we train, but do not realize it. Check out this stretching article from Joe Defranco (see references).6 If you scan about halfway down the page you will see a series of studies that confirm weight training as an effective means of flexibility training. In fact, weight lifters were only second to gymnasts in one report! At first thought, with all of the portrayal of negatives surrounding weightlifting in the media, it would seem that this would be a fallacy but it is definitely not. When we lift weight we have to stretch a muscle before we contract it. Also, weightlifting falls into the passive stretching category since we are utilizing an external object to drive the stretch. More specifically, it is known as a loaded stretch. Why it is so effective is because you are using your personal effort plus the weight to drive the muscle into an even greater stretch. Plus, regardless of the size of a muscle, one of the 5 key properties of a muscle is its extensibility. “Extensibility refers to the ability of muscle to be passively stretched beyond its normal resting length.”7 It’s completely false to believe the commonly held notion that more muscle restricts movement. Muscle is flexible in nature. As a testament to this, just look at all of the massively big bodybuilders who could perform the splits and all sorts of stretch demonstrations at figure shows.
Another problem with the promotion of stretching or flexibility training this day and age is the labeling of it as a primary training means. Put differently, in most athletic training models, stretching is placed ahead of the actual primary training types (e.i. Speed, Strength, and Power Development) that really get the results, and sets the great athletes apart from the good ones. This is so wrong, and recall that we can kills two birds with one stone when we train right. There is a saying in the industry that goes; look at what the majority of people are doing in training and just do the opposite. So below, I created a little table that shows the contemporary training model. All you have to do is reverse it, which is what athletes and just about everyone should be doing to get better and make the most out of their workouts, but are not, unfortunately. If you really want an edge in training so that you can set yourself apart from the competition, then this short and simple model should not be overlooked.
CONTEMPORARY TRAINING MODEL:
Primary Training: Secondary Training:
Hopefully, this article helped shine some light on some of the issues surrounding stretching. We discovered what stretching is, the different types, its benefits, when you should do it, as well as some of the drawbacks to doing to much of it, and where it stands in a comprehensive training program for those who truly want too maximize their athletic potential.
#3-Hamilton, Nancy. Kinesiology: Scientific Basis for Human Motion. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
#4-Clark, Michael. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008.
#7-Floyd, R.T. Manual of Structural Kinesiology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.