That is the question, right? I’m sure if I polled everyone reading this article, somewhere around 95% of you would say that you stretch either before or after (or both) exercising. But why do you do it? I’m sure you’ve been told that it’s the “right thing to do,” or that you’ll be able to decrease your soreness the next day, however, did you know that muscles don’t actually stretch?
Frequently, runners and other athletes will tell me “I stretch before I work out very day.”
It may feel like it, but that’s not what is actually happening. Muscles do not stretch in the way lycra outfits stretch. A skeletal muscle is attached to a bone at both ends and always stays attached. The overall design length remains roughly constant as it elongates and contracts. Muscles change length through a complex mechanical and chemical interaction between thin filaments and think fibrils of a muscle fiber. Like a ratchet mechanism, the fibrils and filaments pull together and the muscle contracts. When a muscle elongates, or, as we commonly say “stretches,” the ratchet is reversed and the fibrils and filaments slowly let go of each other. This elongation of the muscle allows it to return to its design length. (Emphasis added)
I’m sure some of you are wondering why you have stiff muscles one day and not the next. Or, you might be wondering why you wake up in the mornings stiff but tend to loosen up throughout the day:
If you bend at the waist to touch your toes and your hamstrings and glutes are “stiff,” it is not that the muscles are shorter than they were last week. Here’s what’s happening: What we regard as stretching is an important aspect of the body’s fail-safe system that protects it from events that would restrict the ability to move. Stiffness or resistance when we walk or run or bend is similar to the message a ball player gets when he is chasing a fly ball and crosses the warning pad–Watch it! You’re approaching the center field wall. In the same way, the muscles are telling us that they are approaching the limit of what they regard as normal motion, beyond which damage might be done. (Emphasis added)
While I’m certainly not telling you to avoid stretching, I think it’s important to realize what’s actually happening. If you are “tight,” you can stretch until you’re blue in the face and it won’t do much good. However, if you focus on the joint position and change the range of motion of the joints that the muscles are attached to, your focus is in the right place. Only then will your muscles regain their proper length and tension.
QUESTION: What are your thoughts on stretching? Is it something you implement before or after a workout?