Stretching the truth

I rarely get my clients to stretch. In fact, I never do unless they have some injury or niggle that could be caused or aggravated by overly tight muscles in a particular area (glutes and hamstrings are often the culprits here) – and yet, nobody seems perturbed by the fact that I can go from not giving a single stretch to a client, to making them stretch in between every single set, nor by the fact that other personal trainers around them in the studio get their clients to stretch.

Nobody has ever mentioned it to me, and yet the topic deserves a little more airtime (or whatever the internet equivalent is… megabyte-time? That sounds delicious).

I figured stretching was a waste of time unless you had a reason to commit regularly and wholeheartedly – in other words, not my sporadic 10mins of trying to unite my face and my knees, which were really just an excuse to sit on the mats in a corner of the gym when I was too exhausted to walk to the showers. But as I have spoken to clients who practise or teach yoga, and as I engaged in my first ever yoga sessions, and though I know that stretching is only a very small part of yoga, I felt more inadequate than ever in my inflexibility (an area of mild shame for me ever since my mum laughed at me for not being able to touch my toes – or something – when I was little). The biggest highlight of my second yoga class was being able to rest my cheek on the floor when lying face down with my head turned to the side – until very recently, my head hadn’t turned that far since I started grappling (no-gi Brazilian jiu jitsu) a couple of years ago.

Side stretch

My stretching doesn’t look pretty

So I am on a quest to improve my flexibility, mainly because I don’t like not being able to do stuff, or not being better than average at it. But is it something we should all be striving for?

Most people I know of who stretch will do it not because they want to become more flexible, but because stretching is thought to reduce the risk of injury. But when you think about it, a more flexible joint – that is, a less stable joint – probably increases injury risk. However, maybe a more flexible body as a whole allows all joints and soft tissues to move freely and therefore function more fully, thereby improving the body’s ability to work as a well-tuned unit? When one muscle becomes overly tight, it forces other muscles around it to work harder than they are used to and it can tug harder on a joint than the antagonistic muscle, thereby pulling things out of line and out of synch. Although there is no evidence to support stretching before or after exercise as a means of injury prevention, I would err in favour of keeping everything in check.

Unfortunately, based on my own experience I would surmise that most of us only stretch the muscles that are already flexible. If a muscle is super flexible, stretching it becomes more enjoyable and easier to push further; whereas if that muscle is tight, stretching feels unnecessarily torturous, and we are likely to not push the muscle to a full stretch, or to avoid the stretch altogether.

Hurdler's stretch

I do this a lot less now that my hamstrings are so tight

Can stretching reduce muscle soreness? I can see why people would think this; when your muscles are sore, they feel tight and stiff – so stretching them seems like the perfect antidote. But while stretching may offer some relief whilst the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) rage – and will certainly prevent things overtightening and causing other problems – stretching as a preventative measure has not been shown to be effective. DOMS are typically caused by minute tears in the muscle fibres during unfamiliar or more intensive exercise, so stretching after a tough session won’t go any way to undoing that. However, as increased circulation to the area can help decrease the pain (as the area may swell to deal with the damage to the fibres), a short cool-down including some stretching may be a good way of promoting circulation, by continuing to move the body and helping things realign as opposed to collapsing in a heap on the couch feeling valiant for having exercised.

Of course, your sport may require you to be flexible in one or more areas. Gymnastics and dance are the obvious disciplines that spring to mind, but most sports will require a certain level of flexibility in at least one joint or muscle. The flexibility attained for these sports is not necessarily beneficial: hyperextension is not uncommon in knees and lower backs for gymnasts, and it can plague the health of these joints for years to come. In these cases, of course, there is no question that stretching is beneficial for performance – but not necessarily for overall health.

Other sports and physical activities, on the other hand, may be compromised by stretching and excess flexibility. If you compare your muscles to rubber bands being stretched and then released, you can easily imagine that a stiffer rubber band travels further once released. As above, just because a certain protocol benefits performance in a particular discipline, does not mean it benefits overall health, wellbeing, and structural integrity of the body.

The problem with the studies I have encountered so far, is that they all compare either the types of stretches related to injury rate, or the level of flexibility related the injury rate. None – that I have seen – appear to take into account natural flexibility levels. You and I may have completely different sit-and-reach test scores (the one where you basically try to touch your toes, from sitting up with your legs out in front of you), but you may have just completed a 6-week intensive stretching programme whilst I sat working at the computer for those 6 weeks. As a result, your hamstrings may be very flexible compared to what they are used to, while mine might be a lot tighter than normal. It is the change from our individual “normal” state that would, logically, dictate how likely we are to injure that muscle, rather than the current state. To use the rubber band analogy again, a thick rubber band may be old and used to the point of being much stretchier than usual, but it might still be stiffer than a thin, brand new counterpart. Yet that old, used, stretched out thick band will be more likely to snap under strain than the brand new one.

Tricep stretch

The only time in the last couple of years or so that I have actually stretched my triceps

Likewise, my ridiculously flexible shoulders have given Ben (and more than one training partner) cause for alarm when, during jiu jitsu sparring, my shoulder has happily allowed itself to be twisted completely out of position without causing me any pain. I have avoided tapping out in sparring many times from partners simply giving up on the submission, either thinking they had the position wrong or fearing they would snap the limb off. Of course, the lack of stability does mean that one day, the joint simply would have given in, and I’d have ended up with a dislocated shoulder. So is that shoulder flexibility good or bad? You tell me!

One thing that is certain is that flexibility decreases with age to some extent or another, in various joints: this article cites sa decrease of up to a 50% in spinal extension (bending backwards) in women between the ages of 20 and 84 years. So while I don’t necessarily need to become more flexible through all or any joints right now, I don’t really like the idea of getting much less flexible – not for the sake of being flexible, but to keep my body functioning in the way I am used to it functioning. So regular stretching may just help keep the joints oiled, and maybe that’s enough.

Bridge

If my spinal flexibility is due to decrease by 50%… God help me!

So… to stretch or not to stretch? How do you figure out if stretching will benefit you?

Quite simply, if you need to stretch, you are probably already doing it – your sport requires it, or you are rehabilitating an injury – or you know that you should be doing it – your inability to perform certain movements impacts on your comfort and functionality, or you are suffering from aches and niggles that you haven’t had checked out yet. I never have time to stretch until I am struggling with an injury, and then I make the time.

I think the key is staying in touch with our bodies and wellbeing – pain and discomfort should guide us to what needs a bit more attention. No matter what the experts say, we can only go by what feels right in the moment, so let’s start with that.

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