There is much debate in the fitness world about stretching. The popular consensus appears to be that consistent daily stretching for ten to fifteen minutes is important for increased flexibility, which improves joint mobility for daily function. The most current prescription for casual exercisers is: a light cardio warm-up and dynamic stretching prior to a workout, static stretching after a workout. Based on their own personal experience, people generally have their firm beliefs about how much stretching is required to obtain the benefits of flexibility – some require more than others, and others do not stretch at all. (Full disclosure: I am the latter.) If athletic performance rather than flexibility is your goal, your attitude toward stretching may be completely different, and different still depending on whether your sport demands power or range of motion. Regardless of where you fall in the stretching spectrum, there are situations in which your personal stretching routine is appropriate and there are situations in which stretching is actually detrimental to your body’s healing. Our bodies send us signals to let us know which situation we are experiencing, and it’s important to be able to interpret those signals properly to give our bodies the response they need. I will explain both scenarios.
When we have used our muscles more than we are accustomed to doing, our muscles can experience soreness. This can happen deliberately, like from increasing weight load at the gym, or inadvertently, like when performing a different type of activity than we normally do (shoveling snow after a big storm, for example). The feeling of soreness often accompanies the body’s response to microscopic tears in the muscle created by the increased force of the contraction. (Soreness is not, contrary to popular belief, due to lactic acid build-up, which clears the body a few hours after a workout). We experience swelling and inflammation because nutrients and fluids flow to the muscle site in order to repair these micro-tears, and this tear-and-repair process is actually how the muscle grows and becomes stronger. An interesting side note about soreness is that muscles tend to become more sore during eccentric contractions than concentric contractions. Concentric, or “positive”, contraction is when a muscle generates force as it shortens. This typically happens as the muscle works against gravity: the load is most often traveling up (think of lifting a heavy grocery bag onto your shoulder). The “negative” or down phase involves an eccentric contraction, in which the muscle produces force as it lengthens while resisting a load. The load is traveling down more slowly than gravity alone would take it down (think of lowering that same grocery bag onto the table slowly so as not to break the contents). For example, runners performing hill workouts report more soreness in the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thighs (which contract eccentrically while running downhill) than the glutes (which contract concentrically while running uphill). In a scenario such as this, or any in which you experience muscle soreness, stretching is appropriate. It may not eliminate your soreness, but it could help move some of the fluid out of the area and decrease the swelling.*
However, in some situations the sensation you experience is more than just soreness. If you are experiencing pain, you might have over-stretched the muscle. As counterintuitive as it may seem, stretching out the muscles in which you experience pain in this case is not the best course of action. As these muscles are already over-stretched, stretching them MORE is not helpful. With over-stretched muscles, there are two things you can do that work much better than stretching: massage and exercise. What’s right for you depends on whether you have an acute injury or a chronically elongated muscle. An example of an acute injury would be performing a vigorous kick in kickboxing and over-stretching the hamstring or hamstring tendon on the back of your thigh. For an injury such as this one, rest is probably the best idea. There are multiple massage modalities which can help you, as well, including active and positional release therapy. Positional release will be the topic covered in my next blog post. It yields amazing results and can be done by yourself at home.
Chronically over-stretched muscles also respond to massage, but they tend to respond even better to massage coupled with exercise. A very common example of discomfort due to a chronically overstretched muscle would be a constant nagging pain in the shoulders and in between the shoulder blades, after a long day (or days) slouched over the computer desk. A simplified version of what is happening is this: when you spend many hours with your arms in front of you, you are continually contracting your chest muscles. Due to reciprocal inhibition, opposing muscles perform the opposite actions. This means that if a muscle is shortening, the opposing muscle must lengthen. The contracting muscles, in this case the pectoralis muscles, are perpetually shortening so they are sending constant signals to their opposing muscles, the trapezius and rhomboids, to lengthen. If these muscles are continually receiving signals to relax, eventually they stop activating and they become very weak. This is where exercise comes in. By exercising those muscles you can strengthen them and stimulate them to activate. In this example, pull-aparts with a band, seated rows and wall angels are all helpful exercises to perform. **
To summarize, stretching can be beneficial. Stretching muscles can lead to increased flexibility in their corresponding joints, which can aid in pain-free movement in everyday life. Stretching, however, is not universally advisable and there are situations in which it can even be harmful.
*Massage helps reduce DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and a number of studies prove it. In two similarly designed studies where all subjects lifted weights but only half received massages two hours after working out, subjects who received massages reported less muscle soreness than the subjects who did not. In a longer-term study in 2005 in which soreness and swelling were measured, all subjects lifted weights, but only half of them received massages 30 minutes after exercise and then one, two, three, four, seven, 10, and 14 days post-exercise. The subjects who received massages reported 30% less soreness than subjects who were not massaged, and importantly, swelling in the muscle was reduced only in the subjects who received massage. It may be that the pressure of the massage strokes moved fluid out of the muscle and reduced the swelling that causes DOMS. Whatever the mechanism of action, massage after a workout (sometimes lots of it) was effective in reducing DOMS in these studies. (MedicineNet.com)
**”Regaining Healthy Posture”, Michelle Burns, BSRN, BSAltMed, LMT