Don’t get me wrong, stretching is a very important part of regaining or improving one’s range of motion (ROM) – the full movement potential of a joint but it is not even close to being the thing that fixes it all. Not only are there so many various ways of stretching but no two people are the same so what works for one person, won’t necessarily work for someone else. When stretching, there are certain factors that should be taken into consideration and that’s what we are going to talk about.
Before stretching, it is important to know the cause of the tightness or limit in one’s range of motion. Is it due to an injury, posture, stress, change in routine, repetitive stress, or etc. No one is born inherently tight. Imagine a baby, when they are born, they have so much flexibility and eventually as they get stronger this diminish as the body adapts to its daily needs. The body is such a perfectly designed machine that it will adapt to be efficient in the efforts that it needs to. What is it about your daily routine that could cause tightness in certain areas? Are you sitting at your desk the whole day? This could lead to tightness in your hamstrings or lower back to mention a few things. Do you carry heavy items around often? This could lead to pectoralis major & minor tightness & also your hip flexors. Do you sleep on your stomach with your hands under your pillow? This could lead to tightness around your deltoids, trapezius, & sternocleidomastoid. When stretching, you are reminding that muscle of how far it should normally be able to go and that is why it feels so much better. All this work is easily reversed when one goes back to what the same routine as they had before. What if the cause of the tightness isn’t muscle related?
There is a layer of tissue that surrounds and intertwines with the tissues or a group of tissue around our body called fascia. Fascia is layer of collagen created by the same tissue that creates tendons and it is built to hold resistance against tension that is in a single direction. When we’re stretching, we are applying tension in a single direction and fascia will resist that movement from happening because it has been conditioned to believe that the muscle already has its full potential. Fascial tightness can be improved by using a foam roller to rollout the collagen fibers and expand them a little more. Foam rolling helps spread these layers out so that when stretching, the muscles can reach their true full range of motion. Foam rolling usually hurts in the beginning because there are certain spots of fascial connection that are around trigger points. Trigger points are hyperirritable spots around the muscle where there are a lot of nerve fibers. Once you’ve overexcited the nerves around the trigger point, the nerves relaxes and that causes the fascia to relax allowing the stretching to be more efficient.
How long do you hold a stretch for? There are so many various responses that seem to range between 30 seconds and 1 min. To a certain extent, this works for some people. It would be awesome if the body has read the anatomy textbook and works the way it says it should but for most people that is not the case. The tension that a person can handle, depends on their discomfort tolerance. What someone can handle for 45 seconds doesn’t mean that the next person can also hold for 45 seconds. The length of time that it takes a muscle to relax, depends on the person doing the stretching, if they are doing it properly, or even their stress level at that moment.
This leads us to the third part of this discussion, what is your goal from stretching? What would you like to achieve from stretching? Is it to warm up before exercising or is it to cooldown after a workout? There are various forms of stretching and each of them have their own protocols in terms of the length of time they are held for or how far into the “discomfort” zone does one go to. I’ll just be talking about two of them: static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is the form of stretching that most people are used to. It is the stretch which is held for a certain length of time, that feels uncomfortable in the beginning but then eventually eases off. This is due to the neurophysiological changes that happen in our body. To understand this response, you should know a little bit about muscle anatomy. Our muscles are laid out in various fibers and at the end of these fibers on our tendons, we have these sensory receptors called the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) that notices the change in tension of the various muscles. When a tension is held for more than 6 seconds, this receptor perceives that the muscle is in danger of getting torn so it bypasses the muscle spindle’s (a sensory receptor which let the brain know that a muscle is being stretched) input and causes the muscle to relax. This is the body’s normal response to protecting itself from danger. With this knowledge, that is why the guidelines for static stretching are 30 s – 1 min because it should technically give the various muscle fibers that are placed into tension enough time to relax but that is not often the case. Since the result of static stretching is a relaxed muscle, it should not be used at the beginning of a workout as that can cause injury because the muscles that are needed will be relaxed.
The second kind of stretching is dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is the kind of stretching that is done as a way of activating the muscles and warm them up before any kind of activity. The stretches aren’t held for more than a couple seconds at most and the movements is repeated often. Most movements are a precursor to a movement that is going to be done in the activity involved. So for example, if you are going to be doing squats, doing some leg swings to activate and stretch your hip flexors and hamstrings is always a great choice. Doing some band internal or external shoulder rotation is always a good idea before doing any rowing or pressing exercises.
When trying to keep the body mobile and pain free, you have to think of all the various parts that it requires to move. It is never just one part that is affected. It is an intricate web of muscles, nerves, bones, fascia and many more tissues that all intersect and connect at various points. When trying to achieve mobility, every single one of these factors should have pain free motion. If they do not, there is always going to be something lacking and the pain, tightness, or stiffness comes back.
Marieb, E. N., Hoehn, K., & Hutchinson, M. (2013). Human anatomy & physiology. San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education/Benjamin Cummings.