Everything You Need To Know About Stretching

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Before the early 2000s, stretching was considered an essential part of starting off any workout routine. It was also a staple solution to any existing muscular tension or “tightness.” Today, many of the same rationales are still in use, so it’s worthwhile to bring attention to what’s right and wrong about stretching.

Is Stretching Really Good For You?

As a whole, there’s nothing wrong with stretching muscles, and the truth of the matter is, when most people do it, they’re going to feel some version of relief or “good” as a sensation-based result. Things really get put under the microscope when asking about this from the vantage point of a lifter who’s after high performance in the gym. Then the use of stretching takes on a very different, more nuanced complexion.

What Does Stretching Do To Your Muscles

Many people only think about stretching from a one-dimensional perspective. Taking a muscle and elongating it to get a good stretch across the muscle belly. But it’s important to consider what comes along for the ride:

  • Stretching a muscle also stretches the nerves that run through that muscle. That temporarily impairs their strength and dulls their ability to contract strongly.
  • Stretching narrows the transport conduits for blood (arteries and veins), meaning lower circulation during the period of the stretch
  • Stretching reduces stability of joint capsules

This all sounds pretty bad, right?

Well, it depends on how you look at it, and what you use stretching for.

When we’re training, the goal is usually to apply forces against (possibly heavy) resistances, to have our CNS (central nervous system) nice and sharp, and to ultimately perform well without risk to injury. Although a good deep stretch can feel nice before a workout, the truth of the matter is, on a scientific level, it’s not doing all that much to double down on working for performance and playing to your strengths. That’s why, these days, static stretching before workouts is usually not recommended.

Of course, the effects of static stretching listed in the bullet points above don’t last forever. If you stretch your hamstrings and then do Romanian deadlifts 30 minutes later, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be doomed to a sub-par performance in those deadlifts. As mentioned, the effects of static stretching are temporary, but it’s useful to know that it won’t have a lasting beneficial impact on your performance either.

Dynamic Stretching vs Static Stretching

Rather than focusing on held positions for stretches, the emphasis should move away from static stretches to dynamic stretches. It solves many of the above problems when the body gets to pass through positions instead of hold them, placing more of the lifter’s focus on capacities of mobility, rather than those of strict flexibility. These can all have a greater effect on the goals of a warmup, which include increasing heart rate, releasing synovial fluid (to lubricate joints), and even prepare for movements that will be used in the workout itself. Some good examples of dynamic stretches are:

A good warmup will involve plenty of this kind of action, and not take longer than a few minutes (5-7 should be the goal) before getting ready to hit the iron. Putting things together for a smart approach to a foolproof warmup might look something like this in its entirety.

When to Perform Static Stretches?

A great rule of thumb would be to wait for the workout to end before using the static stretching method. Think of it this way: If you’ve ever received a solid, deep tissue massage from a licensed practitioner, chances are you felt pretty good after. You may have been able to move better and even feel a release of stress or tension, but you probably didn’t feel like the next thing you wanted to do was sprint 100 meters at a PR speed, or lift your max effort squat.

The reason why is because the massage was another method to suppress your nervous system. And it’s a reason why lifters and athletes may get massages after a tough workout or game (not before). This is the same logic to be applied to stretching, post-workout, calming the nervous system down after amping it up would be a smart call.

With that said, there’s one exception to the rule where this can come in handy, and that’s using static stretching tactically within your workout.

Here’s a scenario: You’re doing sets of rows or chinups, and your shoulders can’t seem to get down for a proper depression and retraction, in order to really zero in on the back muscles you’ve intended to hit with your working sets. You can hammer away at technique work all you want, but your shoulders keep sliding out of position to frustrate your lift’s performance and isolation.

This is where intentionally dulling the neurological involvement of certain muscle groups via static stretching can come in handy. Static stretching the upper traps and pecs deeply between sets and then immediately going into your next set of rows or chins can be a big difference-maker for how well those back exercises end up “taking”.

Applying these principles to your training can take your gains to the next level, and help you feel better on all fronts, during your workouts.

Lee Boyce is a personal trainer, college professor, writer, and speaker based in Toronto, ON. He travels around the world delivering seminars and workshops helping fitness professionals improve their skills, His book Strength Training for All Body Types (co-authored with Melody Schoenfeld) is available everywhere.
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Visit his websiteleeboyce.comto apply to work with him directly.


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