Before we get into the specific muscle groups and body regions, I just wanted to do a quick write up on stretching as a whole. In the past few years, stretching has taken a beating in the media. It seems that every new study that comes out reports that stretching is a complete waste of time. It won’t help performance, it won’t speed up recovery, it won’t cut back injury rates, blah blah blah. All of that may very well be true, but in the event of an injury where a muscle is stuck in that tight, protective position, stretching is a great way to restore mobility without causing further damage. This allows for healing by breaking up any restrictions in the damaged muscles and can help to flush out swelling and decrease pain. Stretching is also a great way to prevent building restrictions from becoming an injury. Will it 100% bullet proof you from injury? Unfortunately, no, but it can certainly limit the number of repetitive overuse injuries you’ll have and decrease the severity of those injuries. How many times have you been sidelined only to say “you know…that was pretty tight in the days and weeks leading up to it.”??
Why do I need to stretch?
While there is no research based proof to say that stretching will make you faster, stronger, and impervious to injury, I like to look at the importance of stretching in a much simpler way as a clinician. Muscles and joints are designed to MOVE. When muscles lose flexibility, they loose strength and coordination, but more importantly they also negatively impact the joints they move. Every patient that walks into my clinic has the same first goal- restore mobility. From here I can move on to strength and function, but I need them to be able to move first before I can effectively work on those.
Stretching is easy to sell to people who are hurt and who can see first hand that there arm or leg isn’t moving the way the other side does. It’s much more difficult to sell to people who are not hurt and don’t see the point (if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right?). My answer to the latter group is this- at the very least, regular stretching will maintain healthy muscles and joints. The tighter the tissues are around a joint, the more grinding and rubbing there will be. THAT is how arthritis and other degenerative joint disorders happen, not some sudden event or that your dad had it. Whether that’s a priority now (thanks to an injury) or later (when the cumulative wear and tear has caught up to you ) is your choice. As you’ll see in the upcoming series, it doesn’t take hours to do these stretches and requires no additional equipment or setup. In most cases you can stretch faster than you can whip up your recovery drink. Prevention goes a long way!! If you’re reading this, then hopefully you will also the value. My clinic is full of masters athletes who have rusted into their “golden years”. Don’t be one of them!
When is the best time to stretch?
Warm muscles are best. This can be following a workout or following a warm up with the foam roller. Personally, I rarely stretch in and around actual workouts. Before a race, following a solid warm up, I will do, but for day to day stuff, I barely have time for the workout itself let alone time to stretch after. I’m more of a foam roll + stretch in front of the TV athlete. Why the need for a warm up? It loosens up not only the muscle fibers themselves, but also the tendons that attach them to bones, and the joints that they contract to move. In other words, it loosens up everything. What if you don’t have time for a warm up?? You can absolutely stretch cold muscles and joints. If this is the case, start of super easy and build into the stretches. Use that as your warm up instead of going for a home run on the first stretch and causing damage.
How long do I stretch for?
At a minimum, stretches should be held for 20-30 seconds. This is the requirement for muscle memory to register and is a key part of the puzzle. From there, increasing a muscles natural resting length is all about frequently stretching past it’s current length. To do that, shoot for 3-4 repetitions every time you stretch. Can you hold longer than 20 seconds and just do a full 1-2 minutes instead? Sure, but you’ll be making short term improvements (helpful for acute/new injuries) versus long term improvements (what you’re looking for with chronic/old injuries).
What if I’m hurt?
Simply put, stretching should NEVER hurt, whether you’re fighting an injury or looking to maintain/improve mobility. If you’re injured and it is uncomfortable to stretch out the damaged muscle, you can stretch to the point of pain, but don’t push past it in some “no pain, no gain” attempt. Instead, work to the pain point and focus on frequency. Then shift your focus to the surrounding muscle groups that are also tight from compensating. Remember- muscles work in pairs. If one part of the pair is damaged, the other will likely tighten up as well to protect the injury. Follow your foam roller/tennis ball work with stretching right after for best results!
What if I’m not hurt?
This is still a great time to stretch. At the minimum, try to stretch on days with long or intense workouts on the schedule. A few minutes of foam roller work followed by a few minutes of stretching to your problem areas will help flush out the muscles and decrease post workout soreness/stiffness.