Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is Stretching Always a Good Idea?

The benefits and detriments of Stretching

We’ve all heard that stretching is a good thing.  We should stretch before working out; we should stretch after working out.  We should warm up a few minutes, stretch, and then work out.  We’ve been told sometimes to stretch when we’re tense and aching.  Sometimes, it’s something we do without even thinking about it, for instance as we yawn and reach our arms up overhead.  Much of the time, it feels like a good thing to do. 

Here’s why it is a good thing to do:
When we engage in repetitive movements (e.g., computer work, physical exercise...), we naturally tighten our muscles and tendons to perform the movements.  Tension isn’t all bad!  Tension means the muscle is working.  But too much tension, or for too long a period, combined with a limited range of motion, can quickly lead to injury.  Stretching regularly can prevent injuries by maintaining flexibility and a broad range of motion in our joints. 

 Stretching can be performed before, during, or after exercising or initiating repetitive activities.  Warming up muscles, tendons, and joints will prepare the body to accomplish the tasks at hand, bring in proper blood flow, oxygen, and nourishment.  

Imagine having to push a car uphill all day long without the chance to rest, eat, or drink water.  Now imagine having the opportunity to rest, consume required nourishment, and receive proper hydration.

Like your body as a whole, each muscle is a complete, living, breathing, working part of you.  Each muscle--indeed, each cell--also needs to eat, drink, breathe, and rest to carry out demanding tasks. 
Sitting at a computer all day long may not seem like much physical exertion, but imagine the tiny muscles in your forearms and fingers that are working all day without a break and proper nourishment; the muscles in your back, neck, and shoulders being asked to hold your body in place for long periods of time.  It’s as if they are having to push a car uphill.  By the end of the day, your body is screaming in agony.  

Stretching before and during such activities allows the body a little break from working too hard. It’s like giving it a sports drink that replenishes its supply of nutrients and assists it to be able to continue its efforts.
Similar to massage (and often utilized in a massage treatment for this purpose), stretching has euphoric and oxygenating effects that minimize stress and relieve muscle tension.  Most activities we perform compress various joints, including the spine.  Stretching decompresses the back and other joints, preventing injury and hastening the recovery of joints, muscles, and tendons.

But stretching doesn’t just help relax our muscles.  It also has the ability to increase muscle tone by speeding up the process of synthesizing the proteins in muscle fibers, thus more quickly increasing muscle tone, strength, and resilience.

But is stretching ALWAYS a good idea? 

While stretching has the ability to enhance our performance levels, it also has the ability to diminish them as well. 

Stretching the wrong way or too much can be detrimental and actually lead to injuries and destabilized joints. 

Someone with missing ligaments, hypermobility, or with an injury or damage to a skeletal structure, for instance, will have to be particularly careful with their stretching routine.  It will be critical to pay attention to the body and determine one’s own limitations as to the type and duration of stretch performed.  The individual will have to learn for herself when “enough is enough.”  It may feel good for a while to be limbered up after a yoga or stretching routine, but this individual can quickly pay the price should joints destabilize. 

Beyond a certain point, too much flexibility will diminish performance in ANY individual.  It’s up to you to find the right balance between muscle tension and flexibility:  Be flexible enough to have a slightly greater range of motion than what is required by your sport or chosen activity, but not so much more that you would diminish performance by becoming a rag doll whose joints move around too easily.

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Read also:
1.  Delavier, Frédéric Delavier’s Stretching Anatomy. Paris: Éditions Vigot, 2010.

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