March 31, 2016 Zhou Jia

To stretch or not to stretch

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Any sport or everyday activity will have specific requirements in terms of range of motion (ROM), and optimal levels of flexibility exist accordingly. But just as health issues may arise from having insufficient ROM, hyperflexibility can have its own problems, principally in raising the risk of joint injury. When you stretch, muscle filaments are pulled apart to allow the muscle in question to elongate – this may leave you feeling less stiff, but the resulting loss in elasticity of the muscle means that you are also not as strong, and as a consequence your joints are also less stable. Separate independent studies have shown that stretching in fact leads to a decrease in running speed, force production, dynamic strength, isometric strength, and strength endurance.

Any type of resistance exercise training conducted with full ROM is an excellent way to ensure you develop strength and flexibility at the same time. Think about a pull-up. At the start position, with the hands raised directly above the shoulders, the latissimus dorsi muscles (aka the ‘lats’) are at the limit of their normal ROM – you should feel a slight stretch on the lats when elevating the arms into this position. And you will keep coming back to this stretch at the end of each pull-up repetition. In other words, the stretching is built into the exercise itself because you have an application of force at the extreme of the muscle’s ROM. Sometimes in the gym, you will see people ‘stretching’ their lats by raising their arm up over their head and leaning to one side. But what they are actually doing is externally rotating the scapula so that the point of the shoulder blade is digging into the latissimus muscle – this produces a painful sensation which is commonly mistaken as stretching.

Ditto for carrying out a set of lunges to stretch the hip flexor muscles or for carrying out a set of press-ups to stretch the pectoralis major. Stretching the muscles is built into these exercises themselves. The reason why at Prime we believe resistance training is a better way of developing flexibility compared with routine stretching is that resistance training also helps to build muscular strength across the whole range of motion at the same time as building flexibility, whereas stretching will only really develop flexibility.

So… Stretch or don’t stretch? The best advice we have heard on the subject comes from legendary dancer and beauty queen Hattie Wiener, whose mantra is: ‘You should never be more flexible than you are strong’. If you enjoy the relaxing sensation you get from a good stretch, then by all means stretch, but do it at the end of your workout, not before. And as soon as you have increased your range of motion for any particular muscle, make sure you strengthen the muscle across its full ROM.