I thought I’d give you a run down on the most effective and satisfying way to stretch, since most times I go to the gym I see no one doing it. First off, there are a couple reasons to stretch your muscles. First, as many people are involved in daily repetitive postures and movements, certain muscles will adaptively shorten. This means that if you sit all day long (for example), your hamstrings and hip flexors are in a shortened position for most of the day. Since our body is always trying to be as efficient as possible, this sends a signal to the brain saying that these muscles only needs to be ‘this long’. Hence the muscles adapt to the new demand. Second, this shortening leads to altered biomechanics in the way our body functions. The body will always try to compensate for losses by activating other muscles to pick up the slack. But eventually the system breaks down further and further, especially when compounded with injury. Sooner or later you will experience pain, the warning signal. Many times the pain will vanish without a trace, but this does not mean the underlying issue is gone. Stretching can help to re-establish the proper muscular balance in the body. Unfortunately, it needs to be a routine to be effective.
There are a couple rules to follow when deciding to take up a stretching routine.
1. Always stretch after your muscles are warm. This means no pre-workout static stretching. It has been shown that this can lead to a higher susceptibility of injury during the workout. It has also been shown that your muscles will not function as optimally. This means you should not statically stretch before you need to run a race or play a game (something that you need to be at your best). If you are doing a gym or home workout, the best time to stretch is at the end. If you are just stretching without working out, it is best to take a short walk or jog first, just to warm up your muscles. I personally love a sauna session before a good stretch.
2. If you choose to stretch before a workout, the best way to do so is dynamic stretching. (Notice in #1 I said no STATIC stretching. Static means being still, or for example touching your toes and holding that position.) Dynamic stretching increases muscle blood flow and helps to loosen the muscle. This would include a movement such as swinging your leg forward and backward repeatedly.
3. Through my research, I’ve seen that the most optimal way to lengthen a muscle is to perform eccentric muscular contractions with weight. This approach will actually build muscle fibers in a lengthening fashion. So you will get stronger, plus gain added length and mobility. This would be performed by holding weight in a contracted position, and continue to hold in that position while another person tries to pull you out. (This can be done with the other persons strength or by standing on the weights – on a machine assisted lift.) I have done this style of stretching/lifting most with pec flys on a pec deck machine (machine where your forearms are resting on pads and you squeeze in until your forearms are touching). I have seen amazing improvements in my posture (since my shoulders were rolled forward from sitting in class during chiropractic school).
4. Lastly, while stretching statically it should never be painful, only uncomfortable. The stretch should be held for at least 30 seconds for optimal results. And please, always listen to your body. If it feels you have gone too far, back off. If it feels you could go further, ease into it.
I’ve seen in many patients (and myself) how much stretching can actually help alleviate pain and assist in optimizing biomechanical function. In this article, (A Little Something to Help you Enjoy Your Summer Pain Free) I talked about different stretches for low back pain. It can be beneficial for most people, so why not start a routine today? The only thing you have to lose is pain or dysfunction!