Should I stretch? Should I stretch before or after? Will stretching make me a better athlete? Will stretching make me a more confident public speaker? We get these questions a lot. Don’t worry, we are happy to help and the confusion is not your fault. Seems every media outlet out there wants the BIG STORY. The headlines read “best new stretch”, “best way to stretch”, or maybe even “stretching is killing you” –they really want you to by their magazine! So should you stretch or not? Is it OK to be tight? Is it a benefit? Is it possible to be too flexible?
Muscles, tendons, and ligaments shorten and lengthen as our joints move. Therefore, the amount of mobility you need in these tissues is pretty simple to define. You need enough for the tasks and sports you do, and nothing more. Is it really that simple? Yes – and let’s look at what happens when structures around our joints are too tight.
- Tightness in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around a joint causes increased strain in the tissues. Think about a rubber band. You can stretch a rubber band back and forth from slack to fairly taught all day and it will be OK. Think about how much tension is in the rubber band as you shorten and lengthen it. Now imagine pulling he rubber band taught to 80% and then pulling it as far as you can. Do this for a while and look at the rubber band. If it hasn’t popped yet, you’ll notice that the rubber band actually begins to fray a bit – the increased tension inside the band causes damage. This increased tightness inside soft tissues limits our ability to withstand chronic strain inside our muscles – and leads to muscle strain and tears.
- The attachment points of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments form a bag of connective tissue around each and every joint called a capsule. Tightness in these structures can change the way the joint moves. Think about door pivoting open and closed on its hinge - there is an axis on which the door moves. The door has no problem opening and shutting. Now imagine a force trying the twist the door as it opens and closes. This twisting force tries to move the door in a way that the hinges are not set up to pivot around. If you keep trying to open and shut the door, something will fail (the hinges will loosen, the door will warp) – the point is that trying to move a joint in a manner that does not use its normal axis will cause pre-mature wear on structures. Tight soft tissues change the axis of mobility through the joint and cause excess wear on he surfaces of the joints – the is the mechanism for the development of arthritis.
So now that we know the problems associated with tight tissues, all of us should stretch right?…. because the magazines say that stretching causes you to be more agile, stronger, recover faster, and warm up the tissues? Not a single one of these claims has ever been substantiated. You need “enough” mobility around a joint for the sports you perform. A runner and a gymnast have entirely different needs for mobility. Having more flexibility than needed for your sport has never been proven to be an advantage. In fact, we see just as many injuries to people that are hyper-mobile (have tissues that are too loose) as people who are tight.
Stretching a muscle is tearing tissue. Do I advocate stretching? Breaking down the structural integrity of our body is not something we should do unless its needed. Would you tear holes in your clothes for the fun of it? When an individual needs to stretch areas of their body that compromise their ability to perform, stretching is 100% part of their plan. But if there is no restriction on soft tissue mobility, there is no evidence that stretching will provide any benefit at all. In our next post, we’ll tackle the different types of stretching. For now, “enough” is enough.