The importance of stretching is constantly overlooked. Many people feel that its primary, or even only use, is as a precursor to ‘actual’ physical activity; and that assumption could not be further from the truth. Stretching is a tool that is much more versatile and beneficial than nearly any other calisthenic, plyometric, or weight training regimen. This article delves into the anatomical understanding of stretching, the importance of it, and just plain old how to do it.
What is Stretching?
I know it seems blatantly obvious, but there is more to it than meets the eye. It is where the person pulls a grouping of muscle fibers to their maximum length; this causes microscopic tears (if you pull hard enough) in the muscle fibers, of which the body repairs making the muscles longer and expanding their range of motion. Stretching to the maximum range of motion also places force on tissues surrounding muscle fibers; with the increase of tension, the collagen fibers align themselves along the direction of the tension.
Basically, the muscle is pulled to its maximum length and surrounding tissues align/realign according to the tension; as a result, the muscle fibers elongate, and the realignment of tissue aids in the rehabilitation of joint and muscular injuries.
What constitutes a ‘good’ stretch?
When you stretch, some of the muscle fibers lengthen and some stay static. The amount of muscle fibers that lengthen and the amount that stay static depend entirely on how much force is applied. If you pull harder on the muscle fibers, more of them lengthen; thus, more of the fibers receive the benefit of your stretch.
It is also important to hold your position with the same amount or an increasing amount of force. Immediately when you stretch, the middle muscle fibers are being stretched because they are the first to resist. However, if you maintain that position, the outer middle muscles resist and begin to be stretched (the ends of the muscles don’t really get stretched because those are the parts that attach to the bones and ligaments). Over an extended amount of time, the muscles begin to relax and you’re able to stretch further; which is the end goal of stretching.
In summation, your stretch is to be deliberately forceful (not carelessly), and maintained for a decent amount of time; about 1-2 minutes.
What does it mean to lengthen the muscles?
When the amount of tension on your muscle fibers exceeds a certain threshold, it triggers the lengthening of those muscle fibers. The tension is not what your muscles are accustomed to, so there will be resistance from them. Over the duration of the stretch, you continue to inhibit those antagonistic muscles, which causes the antagonistic muscles to relax- which is essentially why people feel calm, stress free, and awake after yoga-because of the relaxed state the muscles become! Overcoming the antagonistic muscles is very important because that is when the muscles begin to lengthen. Again, this lengthening is a result of microscopic tears and after it is repaired, they are able to stretch further (increasing their range of motion).
Oh my god! I’m going to intentionally tear my muscles?!
It sounds worse when you think of it that way. The tearing is natural in muscle growth and any kind of athletic exercise your body endures. It is not harmful to you, unless your stretching is violent and careless, which will result in injury!
DO NOT put such a great amount of force into your stretch that it will strain or tear your antagonistic muscles in a bad way. Microscopic tears are good for your muscles, but a full on tear of a muscle is traumatic to the body, and you will have to seek rehabilitation and physical therapy-and possibly surgery!
This doesn’t occur often, so don’t be too freaked out. Just be a responsible stretcher and know your limits!
How does my body fix these tears?
When your muscles tear, they rebuild through the synthesis of protein. One extremely essential protein is Glutamine, which is incessantly necessary to muscular repair. Glutamine is ingested in protein powders/shakes, can be taken as a supplement, or even consumed through your diet- but your body also produces it naturally. Your body makes Glutamine in your muscle mass, as well as smaller amounts released by your lungs and brain.
Glutamine comes into play when your body is in recovery, because that’s when it is demanded by your body. When you stretch, and create these tears in the muscle fibers, your body sends glutamine (and other proteins) to that muscle which aids in its repair.
Is Glutamine really that useful?
Damn right. You can actually manipulate the bodily production of Glutamine to help with the repair of the muscle groups you exercised that week. By stretching sore muscles, your body will send glutamine and repair those muscles as you try to repair and elongate the fibers that are short and contracted from your workout. It is actually recommended that you continue to stretch the muscle groups for the few days following their training for this reason alone!
Does stretching have any other purposes?
Yes. A stretching program prior to an athletic event is a great precursor. You can’t stretch cold muscles, so warm up your body a little before you try to stretch. As stated before, stretching increases the range of motion in your joints and muscles, and it also gets the blood to flow to them as you elongate the fibers. So stretching the muscles prior to using them to their capacity is beneficial as it helps in its movement. Stretching afterward is a great cool-down to a workout as well, and can even enhance the workout if you stretch during the routine.
That was a lot to take in, can you sum it all up, please?
- Stretch everyday because it increases your range of motion and elongates the muscles, so they can function better.
- It is useful in rehab, because it cause the tendons and muscles to realign along with the tension forced on them.
- Hold your stretch for 1-2 minutes, and with enough force to be useful.
- It helps repair muscle soreness because it creates a chemical that repairs muscle fibers.
- Stretch before athletic events to increase range of motion and blood flow to the muscles about to be used.
Basically, do it all the time because it’s good for you.
Due note, all of this information can be found at: http://web.mit.edu/tkd/stretch/stretching_2.html#SEC13
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