Stretching improves flexibility, but does it prevent injury, increase strength, and muscle growth, and accelerate recovery?
The main reason that we embark in stretching or holding stretched positions for various lengths of time, is that we believe it will help prevent injury, make us stronger, faster, reduce muscle soreness, and speed up recovery. Anecdotal reports suggest that these claims have grounding but does the science support this?
Do you stretch before weightlifting or aerobic activities because you believe it help prevent injury?
There is research evidence to suggest that this is not the case. A study by the SMBD – Jewish General Hospital involved an analysis that came to the conclusion that stretching before exercise did not reduce the risk of injury! A study published by McMaster University agrees and a sports medicine specialist Dr Ian Shrier at McGill University stated that it is in fact possible that stretching before exercise could increase your chances of injury. This is in large postulated to be due to the cellular damage it causes to muscles and its analgesic effect. In layman terms its possibly not the best idea to actively damage a muscle, increase your tolerance to pain, and then load it with excessive strain.
This false logic has been created by the thought process that the improved flexibility achieved from stretching will reduce your injury risk. In my experience most muscular based injuries occur when performing a movement within a normal range of motion. You can isolate this even further into a specific phase of the movement which is the eccentric portion. This is the part of the exercise where the muscle is lengthening under load i.e. lowering the dumbbell in a bicep curl.
The only time stretching can therefore conceivably improve your chances of preventing injury, is if you are requiring a greater flexibility to perform the action e.g. performing the splits. There is another element which I believe has lead to this mythologic confusion, and that is the inclusion of stretching within a comprehensive warm-up routine that raises body temperature and includes repetitive actions within a specified range of movement. The science originally attributed the benefit to the stretching and not the warm up!
Does stretching feature as part of your weightlifting routine in order to gain muscle strength?
Is this just another myth?
I read some research by the University of Milan that took male subjects and asked them to perform a series of jumps from various squat positions. They did this both with, and without stretching beforehand. The height, power and max velocity were measured in all the participants and the results showed a lower performance in the group that stretched 10 minutes before the test. Static stretches of longer duration ( namely 60 seconds plus) were shown in research to negatively impact on muscular performance, however, shorter 30 second stretches did not increase performance, but did not hinder it either. There is a strong theory put forward by researchers that suggests loose muscles and tendons cannot contract as strongly as shorter ones. Whereas the other researched theory suggests that the mere action of stretching interferes with signals from the brain, that give the command to the muscles to contract.
So for all my bodybuilders out there, does stretching have any impact on GAINZ?
Well, having read all of the above research findings, if I said it made no difference you probably wouldn’t be surprised. However, I know when a large number of the bodybuilders I treat and those of my friends that are into building muscle start thinking about gaining muscle, stretching is almost definitely not the first thing that pops into their head. However, maybe it should be and here is why!
Now for the science-
Muscle is encased in a strong connective tissue which we call fascia. Fascia is extremely necessary for ensuring that the muscles move properly and maintain their position required within the body. It is this fascia that could be holding back your muscles growth not the tightness of the muscle fibres. Think about those amazing muscles in your body, you train them, you feed them and maybe even talk to them to get them to grow, believe me they will want to grow with all this help, but what if they have no room to grow? A plant becomes pot bound if it cannot expand its roots and will therefore not grow any further, a goldfish will cease to grow when it reaches a sufficient size for its environment, your muscles are in a similar situation. Fascia is very tough and it will not allow the muscle to grow if there is no room for it to expand. I love this analogy – Its like stuffing a king size duvet into a single duvet cover. The size of your muscle won’t change regardless of how hard you train it, or however perfect your diet is, because the fascia around the muscle is constricting the muscle that dwells inside. A fine example of this issue is the common difficulty that a lot of body builders have whilst trying to increase their calf size comparatively to their quads. This is due to the large amount of fascia in the lower leg constricting their development. The key to balance in this case is fascial release to allow growth. When you’re on that stage, a balanced physique is paramount to strong scoring.
So how exactly do you stretch the fascia?
If we go back to our duvet example for a minute, what if we can expand the size of the duvet cover, the duvet then has room to grow inside and therefore will fill its new found amount of space. Fascial stretching will allow this to happen. The key however, to a successful fascial stretch regimen is the “pump”. The best time therefore to stretch and expand the duvet cover, is when the muscles are pumped and full of blood. When the muscle is pumped up in a workout, with that rush of blood that we seek, the muscle pushes against the restrictive fascial wall. By performing an intense stretch at this point, you will increase the pressure on the fascia, and consequently encourage expansion of the fascia, and hence the growth of the muscle. Who couldn’t admire the incredible physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and who doesn’t marvel at the depth and expansion of muscle groups that are normally regarded as difficult to grow. Well, have a look into his workout routines. Whilst working out, he would continuously stretch whilst he had a “pump” on, which led to his amazing proportions. I believe one of his favourite workouts included dumbbell flies to finish his chest session off, this emphasises a stretch to the pumped pectoral muscles creating amazing depth.
Fascial stretching is far more rigorous than standard stretching, but the results can be fabulous.
You should really feel these stretches. It will feel like a powerful pulling sensation and you should feel the pressure on the muscle as it works against the fascia to expand it.
You need to be careful that you don’t stretch so hard that you cause the muscle to damage or create a tear. You should try to learn the difference very quickly between an effective and an ineffective stretch. If you feel a sharp pain you must stop. You should just feel a steady pull. You should hold the stretch for at least 20 to 30 seconds to give the fascia time to be affected by the stretch. Stretch hard like this ONLY when you have a fully pumped muscle. If they’re not pumped just stretch normally.
Instructions for Stretching for Gainz!
When I watch people stretch, I see them doing bouncy movements in a stretched position for only 2 or 3 seconds, this will not give you the effect that you want. When you perform bouncing movements you are getting a micro contraction and when tensed these bounces can cause muscle, tendon and/or ligament damage. When you stretch you need a decent duration and longevity for the stretch to be beneficial.
Scientists have tested the theory of stretching to increase muscle size in animals successfully, but not yet proved in humans. They also believe that stretching may increase the number of anabolic receptors and initiate the release of prostaglandin’s which also may assist in enhancing your muscle growth.
Now you know how to stretch which stretches are best?
Here are a few examples of stretches that you should be incorporating into your routines for gainz.
Chest – T-Stretch
While standing, extend arms out to your sides until they are parallel to the floor. Slowly, bring them back as far as you can and hold for 5-10 second.
Back – One arm-lat stretch
With one arm extended, grab onto something and tug back until you feel a stretch in your lats. Hold for 5-10 seconds.
Lats – Dead hang
Hang from a pull-up bar and feel a good stretch in your lats and your whole back.
Shoulders & Biceps – Doorway stretch
Position yourself in the centre of a doorway. Grab onto both ends of the doorframe and while keeping your feet in place, let your body come forward until you feel a stretch in your shoulders.
Triceps – One-arm tricep stretch
With one of your arms bent behind your head so your elbow is facing towards the ceiling, pull towards the opposite arm until a stretch is felt in the triceps.
Quads – One-leg back stretch
While standing, grab one of your feet and bring it behind you as far as possible until you feel a deep stretch in your quad and hold.
Hamstrings – Seated leg stretch
While sitting, extend one or both legs and while keeping your back straight, lean forward as far as you can so you feel a stretch in your hamstrings and hold for a few seconds.
If you’re truly saying you don’t have time to stretch, optimise your time by incorporating stretch position workouts in all of your workouts. This way you are stretching whilst exercising.
Here are some alternative stretches
Full flyes, and dumbbell or barbell pullovers
Full pull-ups where you stay in the bottom position for a few seconds, and dumbbell or barbell pullovers.
Donkey calf raises and standing calf raises where you lower your feet down as far as possible, and raise them as high as possible.
Preacher curls and spider curls done with a full range of motion and incline curls.
Seated dumbbell or barbell extensions going down as low as possible.
Basically, any exercise done with a full range of motion will work, but I listed some of the best ones.
Hopefully, you will incorporate some stretches or some stretch-exercises and see your muscles break growth plateaus and keep on growing!
So lastly I will discuss stretching and muscle soreness and recovery.
I guess you will not be surprised if I tell you that stretching to relieve muscle soreness or aid recovery is also a myth. The idea behind stretching to affect an exercised muscle was based on the fact that the damaged muscle would become spasmodic and then create a block in blood flow, which would in turn cause the pain we commonly call DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness. If the stretch alleviated a muscular spasm it was postulated that it should also alleviate a post workout muscle soreness. The theory was debunked in 1986, but the advice has somehow survived. The University of Sydney, proved in 2008, upon review of 10 studies on muscle soreness in healthy adults, that “muscle stretching does not reduce DOMS in young healthy adults.”
However, there is strong suggestion that stretching the fascia, as discussed above, or by foam rolling regularly, you could loosen the fascia and hence the pressure on the muscles would be alleviated and would potentially reduce the DOMS felt and increase the speed of recovery.
While static stretching appears not to prevent injury, increase strength, speed or reduce muscle soreness, there is a need for standard stretching if your chosen sport requires you to have an increased range of movement. Remember to still aim to do this when your muscles are warm.
Is there anything that could be of benefit?
This question leads me to discuss the benefits of an entirely different style of stretching called “Active or Dynamic stretching”.
Active or Dynamic stretching it appears is the answer for improving strength, power, muscular endurance, anaerobic capacity, speed and agility. In contrast to static stretching, you are required to perform a movement repeatedly through a normal range of movement, for example side lunges.
Active stretching will provide an increased blood flow to the muscle body, it will raise your body temperature and enhance coordinated movement.
Thus, whatever your chosen sport or goal, this kind of stretching should be in your kit bag, and is also why you will see those that lift weights go through a series of warm up sets. You may see them performing this exact type of stretching, but when questioned often they are going through the motions without truly understanding why they are doing it. In my opinion at this moment in time, until research advances our thinking even further, it would appear logical to recommend this type of stretching to increase the blood flow to the muscles before you load them.
Always remember that if you are unsure, consult a professional for advice, and if you are getting pain during a normal range of movement, you should seek advice before continuing to perform that particular exercise or movement pattern.
Dr Emma Kirke
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