The Perfect Stretch
To stretch or not to stretch....Why do we stretch? There are many reasons we have been told to stretch such as: -To ease sensation of stiffness/ to help DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) -To warm up -increase flexibility -reduce pain/sport injuries/treat chronic pain -enhance performance -It feels good Are any of these assumptions actually true? Well, we can't really argue with 'it feels good' , right? That's a personal preference! But for the sake of the topic of stretching, let's break them all down and get into the nitty gritty of what science actually has to teach us about this. (As always, this is not my personal opinion, it's a summary of some of the scientific evidence out there which I have compiled into a blog) Let's first clarify what stretching is and to do that, let's rely on the scientific explanation on this one. 'Static Stretching =To elongate a muscle and hold it for a certain time period ' (usually anything between 30-45 seconds) There are a few different methods of static stretching such as 'Contract and Release' and 'PNF stretching', both of which still fall under the umbrella of Static Stretching. Evidence is showing that you get a temporary to moderate increase in your range of motion (ROM) from Static Stretching which is great, right? Is that little bit of increased ROM good enough to fulfill all of the above promises listed? Nope! Ok fine, I hear you say. But I do 'Dynamic Stretching'. Dynamic Stretching? Dynamic stretching doesn't actually exist as a Stretching technique. It's movement . (It has the word dynamic in front of it for a start ) It's not stretching if we refer back to the scientific explanation of what the act of stretching really means. If you add movement to something, it is no longer stretching. Stretch is when you elongate a muscle for significant tension for several seconds. If you then add movement you are simply taking it out of that significant tension. It is no longer a constant. Some muscles in our body are unstretchable and you might be surprised to learn which ones those are. Other muscles we can stretch really well whereas some are really sensitive to stretch and we can even tear them just by stretching them! Our Quads (the large muscles in the front of our thighs) are completely unstretchable. (I know! I didn't know this either! ) You can get a 'feeling of a stretch' but the muscle itself doesn't actually elongate in the slightest. Ok now, let's break the pointers at the top of the page down with some more science. -stretching as a warm up We can't actually warm up our muscles by stretching them. 'It's like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it' * To warm our muscles up we need Dynamic Movement. In other words, the best way to warm up is to do a kinder and gentler version of the activity you're about to do. For example, if you're going for a run it might be a good idea to start walking first (and other exercises that prep you for impact). Doing a calf stretch before a run is not going to warm up your calf muscles... With something like tennis or golf, rotation exercises are for instance a brilliant way of preparing your body for that type of movement which is associated with both those sports. it's the 'metabolic activity of muscle contraction' that warms the muscles up. Which simply means; We can't just elongate a muscle to warm it up, It needs elongation + CONTRACTION. There has been reviews of research on this and the overwhelming evidence is that stretching as a warm up emparts no significant effect and can even cause harm pre activity in some cases. (We definitely don't want that) -To help ease sensation of stiffness/reduce DOMS People think stretching will help the recovery after a tough session but the truth is, nothing can help that. (I know ! I have always been so good with my stretching post a run ..) You might 'feel better' however at the time of you stretching but in terms of muscle soreness, it does not do what we think it does. Let the body deal with the DOMS and it magically does.
-Stretching for injury prevention We have an assumption that if we stretch before a session we are less likely to incur an injury. Why would stretching prevent an injury? The British Journal of Science and medicine in 2014 consistently saw favourable estimates that were obtained from all injury measures except stretching ! They looked at all the things we do to try and help injury prevention such as Strength, endurance, alignment...etc. They found that they all help prevent injury-all apart from Stretching. Stretching did not help injury prevention at all! An important aspect to the injury prevention is the topic of Strength. If strength help us prevent an injury, strength is also there as part of the rehabilitation process to help treat the injury. Since stretching doesn't help prevent an injury, it's not going to help treat it either. In terms of injury, an important thing to look at is 'load management' . It is proven to be the best thing to do post injury. Taking small steps and gradually increasing the load back to normal function. When you have something like wrist issues for example, we need to look at gradually loading them rather than avoiding doing those exercises all together.
-Stretching will increase flexibility As mentioned a little earlier, stretching will increase our ROM but it will not protect or restore a gradual return to normal life after an injury. If I have a broken ankle I need to gradually get back to walking first with my boot and two crutches, then one crutch, eventually lose the boot as my walking gets better and better with increased amount of load. We need to restore natural ROM via load rather than simply stretching it. -Why do we need flexibility? If you put tension on a muscle it'll increase it's flexibility more than if you simply stretch it. There are lots of ways of putting tension on a muscle, I can think of lots in Pilates :) Hardly any average person needs to be more flexible . Most of us have a normal ROM (that's why it's called 'normal' .) And that normal range of movement is enough for us to perform our daily tasks, or to take part in a Pilates class. One of the big myths and fears around the Pilates Technique is that you need to be 'flexible ' in order to do it. This (as some of you know) couldn't be further away from the truth. If I am inflexible, is it really that big of a deal? It doesn't mean that I'm unhealthy does it ? Did you know that the fastest marathon runner in the world, Eliod Kipchoge (2:01:39) can't even touch his toes! It doesn't mean he's going to get injured more, it just means-he can't touch his toes! :)
Take something like Hypermobility syndrome. People that have this still suffer from the sensation of 'feeling stiff' despite the fact that they are overly flexible. (I mean super flexible!) Stretching is not what they need-they need to load their bodies at their end range to avoid things like injury and improve their functional fitness. The sensation of 'stiffness' can still be present even though muscles are extremely elongated. It has nothing to do with whether my muscles are long or short. It's a sensation. Our range of movement is not limited by short muscles. Researcher Todd Hargreaves discovered in one of his studies that athletes don't require extreme ranges of movement. What they require is extreme control and strength at their end range of movement. Look at professional dancers, gymnasts...is it their flexibility that gives them the ability to perform the moves or, is it the control+strength at their end range...?
-Stretching to enhance performance The better you get at movement, the better you get at sport. Does flexibility help make the best athletes? Remember the fastest marathon runner can't touch his toes. You might be able to perform the splits but it still doesn't make you a great dancer if you can't get out of the position with strength and control (like the best ones) Again the key is...Control + Strength at our end range... Flexibility does not matter at all, it is not something to seek. All our Pilates moves can be performed through pure strength and as we have learned, strength and load is much more useful in order to stay fit for life and free from injuries. -stretching to ease pain and avoid injury Flexibility does not have any impact on pain. We have the assumption that if we're stiff we're going to get more pain, more back pain..etc but there are SO many aspects to back pain and pain in general. It doesn't have anything to do with flexibility in fact there isn't one shred of evidence to say that flexibility will prevent us from incurring an injury. 'stretch your hamstrings to help ease back pain'. How many times have we heard that one? There is no correlation between the behaviour of hamstrings and lower back pain. 50% of why people stretch their hamstrings is to ease their back pain. We need to move away from the notion of pain being a 'mechanical' thing. 94% of back pain is non specific which means there is no physical reason as to 'why' and that is a huge thing. And it has certainly nothing to do with how our hamstrings are behaving. If I'm laying down lifting my leg to stretch my hamstring my lower back is going to move into an imprint. Do I feel better because I stretched my hamstrings or is it because my back just got a little movement into it as I was laying on the floor lifting my leg in and out of a stretch? The answer is the movement! What we need when we feel stiff is to move, no matter how small the movement is. As we get older we might feel more stiff. This is a natural part of life. This is because of the Chronic low grade inflammation inside our bodies, in the blood. As we age there is a long term build up of inflammation that gradually escalates over the years so we get stiff and start to get minor aches and pains. This is not going to be relieved by stretching. It's going to be relieved by fitness in general, by getting your whole body working much more. Movement is an anti inflammatory medicine, much more than elongating a muscle and holding it. Why do we care so much about flexibility? it doesn't help us live longer. It doesn't stop us from having back pain. It doesn't lower our cholesterol or improve the health of our heart. It doesn't keep us injury free or give us a higher quality of life. Flexible people are not faster runners and flexibility won't have us lifting heavier weights or react quicker.
'The whole Pillar of flexibility is really false and not important.' (said my Pilates Instructor, Joanne Cobbe to me:)
If our focus instead turns to loading our muscles this will allow for more elasticity. The muscle contraction will give it warmth and elasticity and our range will increase. Not via stretching. Elongation and contraction is key to healthy muscles. Take those hamstrings to their end range and load them. I can think of many Pilates moves here...Take a Shoulderbridge for example! :) IN 2011 Marchal et al gave a group of students exercises to stretch the hamstrings and hips for 4 weeks, 5 times per week. (A very strict stretching programme, don't you think?) After the 4 weeks there was only 16-20% increase in ROM in the hamstrings which is TINY!
When we stretch there is something referred to as a sensory tolerance. The nervous system learns to allow us a greater ROM. We get de -sensitised to the feeling of stretch. Our bodies start to feel safer in that range and so we learn to go into an even bigger range. It is referred to as the 'subconscious control' of working outside of where we normally would do. In other words, what we have is a 'willingness' to elongate further rather than any change happening in the actual muscle. We're basically teaching the nervous system to go a little further. Stretching IS actually good for our heart! :) It gives us an enhanced vagal modulation which is the Dynamic balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic influences on our heart rate, i.e it helps us to adapt quicker to the change in our heart rate. That's good, isn't it?
- Stretching makes me feel good Keep stretching if it feels good! Bear in mind the other reasons we have previously been told...
Flexibility, as discussed is not that important. As long as you can take your shoes off you're fine! :) It's important to note that stretching an area that is already angry is going to make it even more angry. Leave it alone and focus on strengthening the opposite side. Pilates does not require flexibility in those challenging moves. Dynamic Range of Motion is very different. We need to develop our ROM and for that we use movement, not stretching. It's dynamic movement that allow muscular contraction and elongation. It is the shortening and lengthening of our muscles during movement that gives us that bigger range. Mobility comes from strength and movement, not stretching. As always,
Keep Moving. Love, Linda xx
*All this information comes from a wonderful guy, Paul Ingraham who's passionate about unbiased research. Do check out his page painscience.com It is a phenomenal page that contains years worth of research articles, all scientific and evidence based. If you'd like to read more about the aspect of stretching check out 'quite a stretch ' on the painscience.com page.