Stretching: What Is It? What Does It Do To The Muscles? What Is The Best Way To Stretch? Do We Need To Do It?
Stretching is a tool to improve flexibility.
What is Flexibility?
- The ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion (McNeal, 2006).
- Affected by joint structure e.g. ball & socket joint and the elasticity or plasticity of connective tissue (Simmel, Nickels, & Liedl, 2014).
What Does Stretching Do To My Muscles?
Basically it lengthens parts of the muscle (muscle fascicles)
*Theories as to what stretching does have mostly centred on the lengthening of fascicles-based on the evidence that they shorten during contraction. Hamstring research in particular has shown that fascicles can in fact be lengthened (at least with strength work) (Opar, Williams, Timmins, Dear, & Shield, 2013).
- Stretching is just one of the means by which flexibility can be changed (McNeal, 2006). Therefore, you might not be aiming to increase the length of muscles, but rather get them back to their normal length. In that case, other dynamic methods of recovery/treatment e.g. foam rolling, trigger balls, heat or massage may be more useful to reduce neural tension, without necessarily changing muscle length. This is thought to be the effect of foam rolling, rather than a true lengthening of the tissue (Myers, 2013).
- You may also need to consider other options to reduce tension such as spa, sauna, breathing/relaxation methods.
Why Do I Have The Urge To Stretch Often?
- The urge to stretch comes from tension or resting tone in a muscle, usually the result of the amount of contractions a muscle group has done during previous exercise or having been held in a static position for an extended period of time e.g. sitting at a desk (Simmel et al., 2014).
What is The Best Way To Stretch?
- A consensus on ideal dosing does not exist, but 3 times per week for 4 weeks (or 12 sessions) seems to be a common range needed to improve fascicle length, with stretches being held for 30 seconds, with 30 seconds rest and repeated twice more (Leslie, 2017).
- Most stretching interventions e.g. static, ballistic & proprioceptive can increase static joint flexibility, but have little to no effect on dynamic flexibility (Weerapong, 2004). Static joint flexibility is not as important as dynamic flexibility-the ability to get into the positions necessary for your sport.
- Dynamic flexibility can however, be influenced by strength & power training. Moving through the full range of motion of a joint, with extra load or speed, will also provide a stretch on the muscles.
If we train like this, we can change the length/tension relationship of a muscle by using load to lengthen the muscle or take it to the end of its length.
Do I Need Stretch?
In our opinion YES. A combination of static, dynamic and flexibility tools should be used to either:
- Increase flexibility and allow better tolerance of the positions needed to excel in the athletes sport or
- Get back to baseline flexibility following training/competition in order to allow the person to achieve ideal movement position during load and reduce the risk of negatively affecting length/tension relationships, therefore reducing the risk of injury.
Dynamic stretching and tools such as foam rolling can improve flexibility instantly (with a combo of both producing the greatest gains), but the effects last no more than 10 minutes (Smith, Pridgeon, & Hall, 2018).
Research is still mixed on whether stretching reduces performance, particularly in high-powered activities such as sprinting. This is thought to be due to taking the tissue outside its optimal length tension relationship to produce force.
Do I Need To Stretch Every Muscle Then??
No! It depends on your lifestyle and activities as to what muscles you need to pay more attention to to either reduce injury risk or improve performance in your sport or activity. If you are unsure, it is always best to get some professional advice on how much stretching on what muscles is right for you and your lifestyle goals.