Stretching: The Wild West of Exercise
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Should you stretch every day? Before your workout? After your workout? For most of my life I did one of two things:
1) I stretched the muscles that “felt tight" or
2) Stretched the muscles that I thought I was going to use or that I thought I had just used in my workout . (TBH I just guessed and they fell into categories like "legs" and "arms" and "back." Very scientific.)
To understand when, how and what to stretch, we have to think about the goals of stretching. We stretch to move better and have proper range of motion, right? Poor movement patterns that lead to injury often come from muscle imbalances and we stretch to correct them.
Muscle imbalances occur when one group of muscles is overactive, and usually shortened, and the functionally opposite muscles are underactive. For example, if you sit for long periods of time at work, you may have tight, overactive hip flexors. Those tight hip flexors can decrease neural drive to your glutes (ie, your brain can’t get them to work as hard) and they become underactive, and usually lengthened.
To correct muscle imbalances, we want to stretch muscles that are in an overactive, shortened state. We don’t need to (and it actually shouldn’t) stretch muscles that are already in an optimal or lengthened state. Here’s the catch, without a professional's help, it’s hard to know what muscles are underactive and overactive!! You can’t just go on what “feels” tight because, as one of the smartest trainers I know says, “feelings aren’t facts.” They way your muscles feel is neurological, not mechanical (ref). In fact, sometimes “lengthened” muscles “feel” stiff because your nervous system is saying “Whoa, that’s far enough! You’ll hurt yourself if you keep going!”
Stretching is real confusing, folks. Research shows that regular stretching does improve range or motion and decreases injury. There’s also research that shows that stretching right before you exercise, decreases your performance (unless you’re in the olympics, I don’t think you need to be that worried about taking an inch of your high-jump) (Ref). And there’s even some research that shows that some muscles respond better to stretching than others! (Ref) The jury's still out on the degree to which stretching impacts muscle tissue length and/or neurological stretch tolerance (how far your brain lets you go!). Isn’t that confusing? It's mayhem!
IT'S LIKE THE FREAKING WILD WEST OF EXERCISE.
That’s why if you take a group fitness class, you start with more of a dynamic warm up - warming up is very important - instead of a big stretch sesh. The instructor knows that when it comes to stretching one size is not going to fit everybody (but every size is beautiful❣️).
OMG SAM, THIS SEEMS HARD - SHOULD I EVEN STRETCH THEN?!?!?
Yes, absolutely. Muscles that are overactive need to be inhibited through foam rolling and then stretched for safe and efficient movement patterns (Ref). There are 2 really easy ways to figure out what muscles you should stretch:
1. I’ll help you right now! You can send me a video of you doing a few basic assessment exercises and I’ll tell you what to stretch and why! Just email me if you're interested. I’ll do it for FREE because I like you so very much and I want to you move better and feel better.
2. If you belong a gym, most will give you a free personal training session. Take that freebie and let them know you want to work with a trainer who will be able to help you identify your muscle imbalances. (This is more a post-COVID-19 solution!)
Yes, both these options involve working with a fitness professional, but one of them is me! HUZZAH!
Seriously though, it takes some training to be able to identify postural distortion and movement dysfunction due to muscle imbalances, but there’s ample help available out there - take it! You’ll be surprised how much better you feel and move when you get this right!