Q. What’s the verdict on stretching? Should I do it before I lift?

A. Stretching (increasing a muscle’s flexibility or range of motion [ROM] around a joint) is one of the most debated topics in the fitness field. Many swear by it while others never involve it in their program. When facing flexibility issues, you must approach it with a PURPOSE. Is your inflexbility causing joint mobilization problems? Is your daily functioning inhibited by muscle tightness? Is the issue muscle tightness or really weakness in the opposing muscle groups? All of these questions must be considered when stretching.

There are different methods of stretching:

1. Static Stretching – “reach and hold for 15-30 sec”
2. Dynamic Stretching – “gentle movements to lengthen the muscle fibers and get the blood to the muscle” (this is not ballistic).
3. PNF Stretching – “contract the opposing muscle to relax the stretched muscle” (performed with a partner or professional trainer).

Here is what stretching is NOT:

1. It is NOT A WARM-UP….before you say “Whatever! I HAVE to stretch before my workout or I feel tight!” – let me clarify. Static Stretching is not a warm-up. The purpose of a warm-up is to raise the internal temperature of the body by gradually increasing the heart rate and getting blood to flow to the muscles. Static stretching does not do this. Dynamic stretching DOES. Perform slow, gentle movements – either a toned-down version of what you are about to do (i.e. progress from a walk –> jog –> run) or a full-body movement like a few rounds of the Chopper Protocol with a medicine ball (10 down-the-middle chops, 20 side-to-side rotations with foot pivot, 10 diagonal chops with foot pivot). Always involve this type of warm-up to get your muscles and nervous system activated and ready for your workout.

2. From a performance (not rehabilitation) stand-point, it does NOT PREVENT SORENESS or INJURY – in fact, excessive (important word) joint laxity can cause injury during high performance movement. While I do advice static stretching at the end of your workout (or after a sufficient dynamic warm-up), there is very little research that proves static stretching prevents injury or muscle soreness. Many times, excessive soreness is simply from microtears in the muscle fibers (due to overload) or a lack of a sufficient cool-down from the previous workout. It is essential (and safer for the heart!) to gradually relax the body after intense movement (i.e. progress from a run –> jog –> walk). This will get the blood to continue flowing and remove toxin build-up (lactic acid, etc) from the muscle cells. Abruptly stopping movement disturbs the electrical signals to the heart muscle (can lead to heart attacks!) and increases the chance of muscle stiffness and soreness the next day.

3. It does NOT INCREASE STRENGTH OR POWER OUTPUT – the latest research now indicates that static stretching prior to physical activity – especially activity that requires a lot of force or high performance – can actually decrease the strength and power available in the stretched muscle. Even more surprising is that strength and power were also shown to be reduced in the opposing non-stretched muscle. Why? The reason isn’t exactly known, but (without going into specific physiology principles…) it may be related to changes in the mechanical properties of a muscle or a central nervous system protective mechanism.

To see this stretch-reflex principle in action:
Put your hand on your lap, palm down. Take your middle finger and pull it towards you, giving it a good stretch. Release and notice how it “snaps” down back to your lap. This is due to the stretch-reflex properties of muscles.

Now do the same thing, but hold your finger in the stretched position for 30-seconds. As you release, notice how much slower the finger comes down…the “snap” or power output is significantly decreased.

What does this all mean? If you desire increased performance and your movement requires lifting, sprinting or any explosiveness…do not static stretch beforehand.

As a disclaimer…stretching does have its place if it has a PURPOSE. Many of these ‘limit your stretching’ beliefs are directed at the relationship between athletic performance and excessive stretching. For the general fitness population, it is important to maintain (or even increase) the flexibility of muscles around a joint.

Points to remember:

1. Keep your stretching functional – stretch to the point that is equivalent to the range of motion (ROM) required in activities of daily living. Your tight hip flexors that are pulling your pelvis forward and creating low back pain does concern me and is a reason to stretch…..your inability to do the splits is not! 😉

2. Keep your stretching multi-directional – think opposing muscle groups and all three planes of motion (front/back, side/side and with rotation). Example – never stretch the hamstrings (back of thigh) without also stretching the opposing quadriceps (front of leg).

3. You should feel the stretch in the ‘belly’ of the muscle, not the tendons or attachments. If you are static stretching, hold for a sufficient time-frame (15-30 sec) and keep your breaths relaxed.

4. Save your static stretching for the END of your workout, after a sufficient gradual cool-down.

5. Remember that strength training is a very effective way to increase ROM. The “pull” you feel as you lower a weight stretches the muscle (through gentle, dynamic movement) before you contract that muscle to lift the weight. Resistance bands are also optimal for getting a good dynamic stretch.

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