To stretch or not to stretch? That is the question.

This is such an interesting subject at the moment, do we need to stretch? Why are we stretching?

So here I’m going to explore some of the reasons why we might choose to stretch, what the benefits might be and what actually happens – or what we think might happen.

First up then WHY?

Well the most obvious one is that it feels good! When we stretch it gives us a sense of relaxing our muscles and making our bodies

feel better. Take waking up in the morning. How good and satisfying is that morning stretch? Do you twist and turn in all sorts of directions and probably yawn too? Think about a cat or a dog doing the same thing, when they arch their backs after a nap. This is called pandiculation, in short this helps to reset our muscle tension.

Outside of that wake-up stretch, it can give us a sense of releasing tension or restriction in an area of the body. This can and usually does go hand in hand with trying to relieve pain or improve function, or performance.

So, what does stretching actually do?

Well there is some debate here and the research isn’t always conclusive. It also depends on what type of stretch you are doing. Let us look at static to start with, this is where we hold a stretch for a period of time. This type of stretch can help us increase our range at a joint. If we want to touch our toes for example, this would be the one to do. What it won’t do however is help you increase your dynamic range. This means it won’t transfer to something like your running.

Research has also suggested that this type of stretching is best avoided pre activity. It is suggested it can actually inhibit performance, particularly for sports that require power or speed – think sprinting or a heavy lift. What’s more this type of stretch won’t prevent injuries but it is useful for muscle strain recovery.

Next let’s look at dynamic stretching. This is where we tend to move in and out of a movement that usually mimics the activity you are about to perform. This type of stretching is my favourite because it will also encourage blood flow to the working muscles which has more potential to help improve performance. I find it’s also gentler – less risk of overstretching. In some ways it links in with some of the Pilates movements, such as The Saw, Spine Twist, Hip Twists, Spine Stretch Forwards and Roll Down.

Then there is my other favourite type of stretch which is PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation), specifically MET (muscle energy techniques). This is where you ‘push’ or contract a muscle against a resistance, such as when a trainer might hold your leg and push down to stretch your hamstrings. The research on this one suggests that this can help the brain to reset where it believes the end range of a muscle is.

MET’s can be quite gentle too, but you must remember to breathe! The contraction doesn’t even need to be hard; some suggest around 10% of a full effort. And the time held again can be anywhere from 3-7 seconds. I use this one a lot in massage as it can really help to move past ‘barriers’ in movement.

So, stretching can have its uses as such, but it does really depend on what you are trying to achieve. What I have found especially useful is to change the mind set of HOW we stretch.

Instead of taking a stretch to that very end point where we can really feel the stretch, it may be much better to take it to its natural end range. This basically means take it to the point where your range or flexibility naturally finishes, which is what we do when we use MET’s. This also massively reduces the risk of overstretching. Now if you are static stretching then you could take this slightly more.

It’s important that no stretch should cause pain, when our brains sense pain they will cause the muscles to contract as they are anticipating danger. The other important thing to remember is to breathe. Breathing will help the brain to allow the muscles to ‘soften’ and increase that range more, it also encourages that all important blood flow.

By taking it slow and steady we can then teach the brain to help reset our system, allowing more range at our joints without pain. However, it is important to remember that our bodies are all different. The shape, size and position of our bones can dictate massively our sense of flexibility. Some of us are naturally longer in muscle length than others. What is more important is that we have the required flexibility and mobility to allow us to go about our daily tasks without pain.

An important question I ask my clients is this:

‘What are those things in the middle of your legs and what do they do?’

The answer: They are your knees and they bend. Now you can touch your toes!

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