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Stretching: To do or not to do, that is the question

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

Stretching. We all know the word and we’ve all done stretching throughout our lives. Take your neck for example. If you don’t have a good night’s sleep you might wake up with a stiff neck which may hurt to turn or even worse, it could cause one of those dreaded headaches that you just can’t shake. So, what do you do? You try and stretch your neck because you know that it might get rid of that headache or pain you get when you try and look around to see if the boss is watching so you can continue shopping online.

So what does stretching actually do for us?

Let me give you a quick biology lesson.

The musculoskeletal system is made up of muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue/fascia. Bones are to support and protect the body. Muscles allow for movement and are attached to our bones by tendons. When the muscle contracts, it creates movement.

A muscle is made up of strands of tissue called fascicles. Fascicles are composed of fasciculi, which are then made up of myofibrils. These myofibrils can contract, relax, and elongate. Myofibrils are made up of sarcomeres which are bands laid end-to-end. Each sarcomere is then made up of overlapping thick and thin myofilaments.

Skeletal muscle anatomy

Confusing, I know. A muscle is like an onion, lots and lots of layers.

The simplest way to explain a muscle contraction is: A nerve sends out an electrical signal. The muscle receives this signal and releases calcium. The calcium prompts the thick and thin myofilaments to slide across one another. When the myofilaments slide, they shorten the sarcomere which generates a contraction.

So what happens to a muscle when you stretch it?

When a muscle contracts the overlap between the thick and thin filaments increase, so when a muscle is stretched, this area decreases. When the decrease occurs, this allows the muscle fibre to elongate or in other words stretch.

As tension on the muscle increases, the muscle fibre is pulled out to it’s full length as the sarcomeres are stretched out end-to-end. Any additional stretching then places force onto the connective tissue.

Holding a stretch for a prolonged time gives the muscle time to become accustomed to the new length, which can train your stretch receptors to allow for greater lengthening of the muscle.

Another reason for holding the stretch is to allow for the lengthening reaction of the muscle to occur which in turn helps the muscle to relax.

Why do we not do static (held) stretches before an activity?

Stretching can induce a temporary weakness in the muscle. Studies have shown that for up to 30min AFTER you static stretch, the muscle cannot contract maximally if needed, which is why it increases injury risk and you hear all your coaches telling you not to stretch before your activity but after. Static stretching before an activity can also tire your muscle, meaning that you will move slower. Not such a good thing if you’re a sprinter.

Dynamic stretching, which is where you are moving (big arm circles, twisting motions etc) and not holding a position allows the body to warm up the muscles to the temperature they perform best at, therefore improving their functionality. This dynamic stretching is what we do before an activity as it doesn’t place the same tension on the muscle, therefore not placing that risk of injury or decreased performance onto the body.

Why is it important to stretch after exercising?

It’s been a long standing myth that stretching can eliminate lactic acid and reduce muscle soreness if performed after exercise. However, this is not necessarily the case. Multiple studies have proven that stretching doesn’t rid the body of lactic acid and there is little to no effect on the delayed onset of muscle soreness in adults.

Lactate, which is the product of lactic acid, is actually not at all responsible for your muscle soreness. Lactate is created when glucose is broken down to create energy in the form of ATP. Lactate actually helps to delay muscle soreness. When we perform high intensity anaerobic exercises, the muscles gobble up ATP. This causes ATP to be broken down into ADP plus a hydrogen proton. It’s the increase in these hydrogen protons that causes acidification, which causes that ‘lactate acid’ feeling. That ‘lactate acid’ feeling generally kicks in at around 85% of your max heart rate, which is the point where your body produces those hydrogen protons faster than it can remove them.

So with that being said, is it important to stretch after exercising? Yes and no.

Stretching can help to improve flexibility so if you need flexibility, go do some static stretches. If you’re a weightlifter can you still stretch? Absolutely. Will it help with your weightlifting performance or the soreness from after lifting weights? Absolutely not.

Studies have shown that static stretching can enhance athletic performance that require flexibility.

Stretching is also good for the mind. If it makes you feel good, stretch. If you dread stretching after your gym session don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do it as physiologically, it won’t help the soreness or your performance.

So to conclude this super long post: Do dynamic stretches before an activity as this helps to improve performance.

Do or don’t do static stretches after exercise. This is completely up to you or your coach. If you feel good stretching, then stretch.

However, always make sure you do an adequate cool-down after exercising.

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