This week’s post is the first part of my voluminous treatise on static stretching, a post so vast that it has evolved into an epic LOTR style trilogy
In its most basic form, stretching is a natural activity performed by humans and many animals, often occurring instinctively after waking from sleep, long periods of inactivity, or exiting confined spaces and areas.
Static stretching involves deliberately elongating a specific skeletal muscle (or group of muscles) to the point of mild discomfort. The position is then held without moving or bouncing, resulting in a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion.
While I’m looking here specifically at static stretching there are other types of stretching and there is a wealth of information available on the topic. For any of you who are interested in looking further into the subject I’d recommend a Google search for ‘Stretching and Flexibility – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know‘ by Brad Appleton. This is a great read, the source of a lot of the information that follows, and also available as a FREE download, which is never a bad thing
As ever, for those of you who like to cut to the chase, the Cliffes notes are coming up. Those of you who are interested in some more in depth information read on - I’m going to start with some basic stretching theory before moving onto some practical information and recommendations in the next installments. Anyway, without further ado here’s those Cliffes Notes -
I love stretching and stretch my full body after every workout. Here in Edinburgh, personal training clients of mine stretch after every workout and it should come as no surprise that I recommend you stretch after every workout too
Okay, with that out the way onto the basic stretching theory bit.
Basic Stretching Theory
So what actually happens when we stretch a muscle? Basically the muscle lengthens (sarcomere by sarcomere to be more precise) until it is pulled out to its full length, and then the connective tissue takes up the remaining slack. It is interesting to note that when a muscle is stretched not all of the fibres lengthen, some may remain at rest so the current length of the entire muscle depends upon the number of stretched fibres; the more fibres that are stretched, the greater the length developed by the stretched muscle.
When you stretch your body (the muscle spindle to be precise) will record the change in length (and how fast it happens), and send signals to the spine to convey this information. This triggers the stretch reflex (also called the myostatic reflex) which attempts to resist the change in muscle length by causing the stretched muscle to contract. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be (plyometric, or “jump”, training is based on this fact and is also why I recommend easing gently into the stretched position). This basic function of the muscle spindle helps to protect the body from injury.
As you hold the muscle in a stretched position, the muscle spindle becomes accustomed to the new length and reduces its signalling, allowing for greater lengthening of the muscles. When tension at the point where the muscle is connected to the tendon exceeds a certain threshold the lengthening reaction will occur, thus helping the stretched muscles to relax.
Needless to say it is much easier to stretch a muscle when it is not trying to contract
To be continued next week…