Is stretching all it’s made out to be? We are told it’s good for our health, we should do more of it as it keeps us flexible, improves posture and reduces the risk of injury.
But is that the truth?
This may depend on how we’re doing it?
This is not a post on if stretching is good or bad, but more of an insight to what may be going on when we feel the sensation of a stretch and what are we really feeling?
Is anything actually stretching?
When we try to lengthen a muscle by pushing a limb past the point of where you can normally move it, what have we just done?
The muscle has got to its end range of where it can actually work and be of use. The sensation we may be feeling is called Protective Tension. This is where your body increases the tension in the muscle as it gets into an extreme or overly lengthened position. Your body will increase the tension, the more you try to push or pull yourself further. If this mechanism wasn’t in place we could end up with torn muscles.
If the goal is to be more ‘flexible’, we need to have the strength capability to get us into the position we desire. If we don’t have the strength yet then your body is very clever in protecting itself by increasing the tension to prevent damage.
If you keep stretching an area on your body you may end up overriding the body’s protective mechanism. This would mean you potentially end up in a range where you have little to no strength, and lose the ability to control the joint in its new range. This could end up leading to an injury due to the lack of strength and stability around the joint the muscle has crossed.
Have you found in the past that when you stretch, you increase your range temporarily but then the next day you have returned back to your normal range? This totally makes sense as your body has returned to it’s ‘safe settings’ where it has the ability to perform daily tasks safely. If it didn’t we may be in that same situation again where we have lost the ability to stabilise a joint which increases the risk of injury.
The bottom line:
If you feel a muscle is tight or you feel you want to try and increase your range in a particular movement, traditional stretching may not be the safest approach. If you do want some form of stretch, we have the option to do it actively, where we stay in control of our body.
For example, let’s look at trying stretch the muscles on the back of our legs. Instead of trying to reach the floor from a standing position where your whole upper body mass is potentially pushing you further than your body can control, you could try lying on your back and raising your leg. This way you are using the muscles on the front of the leg to actively stretch the muscles on the back of your leg. You may get a similar sensation, but at least this way you are staying within your body’s capabilities rather than forcing it into a potential position it doesn’t want to go.
When Active Stretching is performed correctly, your body starts to build up more strength which may unlock new range safely providing the potential is there. By this i mean there may be other reasons your body doesn’t want to go deeper into a range such as a pathology in that area or it could be the case that the shape of the joint has reached the limit and you would be just pushing bone on to bone.
We are all built differently, different genetics, different shaped bones and our muscle strength capability is different for everyone. Being more flexible (what i really mean is gaining strength in deeper ranges) doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a smart approach and one that isn’t going to harm us further down the line.