Are You Stuck in the Just Stretch More Mentality?
I get the impression that everyone thinks they should stretch more. Is stretching still the catchall that will make us fitter, faster, stronger, feel younger and prevent injury? Is this why that little voice in my head tells me “I should stretch more!’ Will it solve all my troubles?
Stretching is one of the most controversial topics in fitness.
If we think stretching is going to help us in some way then I suppose it’s worth doing. But if you have been stretching and applying the same techniques to your body with no positive change in your results then perhaps its time to evaluate the “What’s and Why’s” of your stretching technique and practice.
When did you get so righty tightly and loosely goosey anyway?
Some of the factors influencing your flexibility are not within your control. Physiological, environmental, and lifestyle all can play a role to varying degrees. Just what you and I consider to be within a normal range of motion and sensitivity (that feeling) may differ. In a general sense, we have guidelines for optimal joint ranges of movement from the anatomy books yet few touch on the individual’s sense of feeling tight and restricted, or loose and unstable.
Just how you have either too much or too little movement comes down to joint structure, muscle and connective tissue quality (tendons, ligaments, and fascia) hyperlaxity, age, sex, temperature, activity and training quality and quantity. Throw in your sport and injury history and there goes your toe touch!
If you think you may be too flexible please take a look back and read this blog on “Joint Hypermobility and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome.” Being too flexible can be detrimental to your health and this blog explains why.
Just what goes on when you stretch is complicated and I think this is one of the reasons there are many opinions on stretching that don’t align. The Stark Reality of Stretching is a book by Dr. Steven Stark that gives a comprehensive enough overview if you are looking for the basics of the stretching science. I like the book’s simplicity and I feel the methods Dr. Stark explains are worthy of exploring.
Muscle imbalances develop over time if not because of what you are doing, because of what you aren’t! Then all of us have this aging thing as well. We can’t fight the loss of elasticity over time fast enough. So perhaps it is simply looking at yourself and the changes you see and feel that will make you realize that doing nothing or the same old things over and over again are not going to help.
Muscles have actions that produce movement of our bones and joints when they shorten or lengthen. Our connective tissues, that is tendons, ligaments and fascia are true to their name and connect our bones and structures but they all can’t be stretched and in fact, with age, they shorten. This shortening can reduce the range of motion and change the sensation and sensitivities we feel across the body.
Quick Anatomy Lesson
Connective tissue: Has both elastic and non-elastic properties. Depending on the purpose and location the amount of elasticity varies within our connective tissues even with young healthy individuals.
Muscles: Originate from a tendon and the tendon attaches to a bone. Muscle actions have a shortening, lengthening, holding, and resting phase.
Tendons: These are the most inelastic of the connective tissues and they cannot be stretched. They attach muscle to bone.
Ligaments: Attach bone to bone and the degree of elasticity varies with location, gender, age, and fitness level.
Fascia: Is an elastic connective tissue sheath or netting that covers our muscles.
Plain old Stretching!
How long have you been stretching that way with no result? There are so many variables that we can adjust with stretching and asking the same questions on technique to different people will get you varied answers.
Traditional methods of training include static, dynamic, and PNF or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.
Static stretching exercises are ones where your body position is held stationary for a predetermined period of time in a lengthened and loaded positon. (From 10-30 seconds to several minutes.) Recent research suggests that this type of stretching prior to a dynamic activity or sport may have a negative effect on performance outcomes.
Dynamic stretching exercises are functional and movement based without bouncing. Because they involve movement one could argue they are not technically stretches and are really moving mobilizations.
PNF uses the body’s proprioceptive system to facilitate or inhibit muscle contraction usually using two people. The “Contract – Relax Stretch”, or “Hold – Relax” cue is used for gaining range of motion in restricted areas of muscular tightness. This type of stretching is largely performed by professionals such as physiotherapists and chiropractors although it can be done with a training partner, or by yourself, if you learn the proper techniques.
Dr. Stark’s book “The Stark Reality of Stretching,” holds value I think as it challenges some of our traditional methods on stretching. His key takeaways: Isolate, Find Zero Tension, Find First Awareness, Less is Best, and Allow the Loss of Tension. They have to be read in his book to understand them completely but I have been using them lately and agree they have merit.
What type of stretching, the length of time to hold the stretch, time of day, and relationship to activity are just a few of the variables I refer to. Let’s face it though if something works for me it may not work for you. I suggest you keep trying until you get the response and change in tissue quality, range of motion and sensitivity that you are looking for.
So what I’m really saying here is I don’t know what to tell you! In the morning, afternoon or evening, and before of after your training in this time crunched world will be just fine. Let’s look at another opinion….
“Stretching is not the answer.”
In his book “Becoming a Supple Leopard,” Dr. Kelly Starett states, “Stretching is not the answer.” It only addresses one aspect of our physiological system – your muscle. (-1) It doesn’t address the positions of your joints or what’s going on in those joints or your skin and nerves and how they affect your movement range.
It seems we are stuck in this “Just stretch it way of thinking.” We need to move better and more often and yet our ability to move well limits our ability to do either.
So movement performance, essentially how you move is important. If you are restricted it influences your ability to successfully do all movements to some degree. Working on your limitations has to be part of your TOTAL Program to optimize results, reduce pain, and decrease the potential for injury.
Starrett suggests a “Mobility System” that encompasses techniques that address your joint mechanics, sliding surfaces, and muscles. He suggests looking at joint capsule positions and influencing change with banded distractions. Therapists have used this technique through manual therapy for a long time but with the use of a band, you can create more space in a joint yourself.
Starrett believes your tissues should all slide and glide under the surface together. Sliding Surface Dysfunction is when this doesn’t happen and your tissues get all stuck together making them unresponsive and unable to lengthen and move. He explains that it is like your muscles are wearing a cast and movement is limited until you take care of the cast with methods like rolling, flossing and smashing to restore the glide.
Muscle Dynamics takes muscles that are used to being in a shortened position and working on improving their end range through mobilizations and self-contract relax methods. Working towards positions that resemble the position that you want to change and improve. If this interests you buy his book!
Set yourself up for success
Invest in some straps, rollers, and balls. Consider buying some books and investing in professional coaching to learn the specific how to’s of the different methods.
Put your self in an environment, posture, and position to stretch correctly.
Decide on an amount of time and commit to it.
Mistakes I see:
#1) Going way beyond the range of motion needed. Is this necessary or safe?
Example: Stretching your hip and taking it WAY out to the side with the use of a strap.
#2) Moving another section of your body without knowing you are compromising the value of the stretch/lengthening by doing it. *Moving the low back while trying to stretch the hip.
Example: Moving the low back while trying to stretch the hip. We call this compensatory movement in the body.
#3) Repeating the same things over and over and expecting a different result.
In My Opinion
Anything you do will not work unless you add low-level consistent core exercises to the mix. I cannot emphasize enough how much I mean this!! In my experience at it’s time! Fitness Results there have been challenges to convince clients of this and offer in our group classes the volume of basics that pretty much everyone needs and does not get. From a cost, time, and effort perspective everyone wants the quick fix to fitness. You will not get real results without dedicating more time to maintenance.
Your body is tight for many reasons as I have explained and any of the methods you implement will not work unless you change the strength of your core structure. Your core is weaker than you might think and the very reason why everything else stays tight and restricted.
They are boring, time-consuming and worth it if you decide to prioritize your body maintenance. My opinion remains to be proven. In time maybe? I can assure you that so far in my personal and professional experience this works and the results are worth it.
You can do it and you should! Good Luck!
Written by: Sheila Hamilton August 2017
Click here to listen to Sheila discuss this topic on the Jon McComb show. The Fitness Segment airs live every Thursday at 9:05 on CKNW 980 am.
The Stark Reality of Stretching: book Dr. Steven D Stark
Strength & Conditioning Journal . 35(5):30-36, October 2013.
Strength & Conditioning Journal . 37(1):74-75, February 2015.
Strength & Conditioning Journal . 34(5):74-77, October 2012.
The Stark Reality of Stretching : Dr. Steven D. Stark p. 11-27
Becoming a Supple Leopard: book Dr. Kelly Starrett page 130 -131
NSCA’S Essentials of Personal Training: Second Edition Coburna nd Malek p 251-259