Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Becoming Stretch Armstrong - Stretching: What is it Good For?

What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin'!

Okay, so that's not entirely true but it's also not technically false. The truth is the scientific community is still pretty much undecided on the exact benefits of stretching. I'm going to do my best to summarize the information we do know so that you can maybe but it to some kind of use. Maybe. Possibly. 

First, we should cover the meaning of tight jointed and loose jointed. These are genetic predispositions to joint mobility. In general males tend to be more tight jointed and females tend to be loose jointed based on the effects of the different sex hormones but this is a pretty broad generalization and any member of either gender could theoretically fall anywhere on the spectrum. There are benefits and negatives to both.

If you are tight jointed you are better at force production, generally speaking. The reason is pretty simple. Tight jointed individuals are "stiffer" than their loose jointed compatriots which means their musculo-skeletal system, when acting as a system of levers, has less give or bend to it and therefore less force is lost when transferred from one muscle to another. Think about it like this; what do you think would produce more force, a machine made with rubber gears or metal ones? The rubber gears would absorb more of the force due to their natural flexibility whereas the metal gears would absorb very little. In addition, the metal gears would be capable of producing a much higher level of force in general as their deformation threshold (read: amount of force they can take before they change shape) is substantially higher than that of the rubber gears. This is a fairly close approximation to why tight jointed individuals can produce more force. They also tend to be a bit sturdier and therefore may excel at contact sports where sheer durability is an asset. The unfortunate negatives of being tight jointed are that you are more prone to muscle tears as a result of your increased capability for force production. Additionally, being tight jointed may leave you immobile or with limited range in certain joints which can make performing all movements with full range and proper motor patterns somewhat difficult.

Loose jointed individuals are basically the opposite. They are much more flexible but as a result generally less capable of producing force. This is not to say that you can not be flexible and strong at the same time, it is only detailing the specifics of the predisposition. Loose jointed individuals tend to excel at sports such as gymnastics and dance where their increased flexibility is an asset. Unfortunately, loose jointed individuals are more prone to joint injuries due to an overall decrease in joint integrity.

So, generally speaking tight jointed individuals need to focus more on flexibility work due to their natural lack of flexibility and the loose jointed individuals need to focus more on developing strength but again, in certain cases even the loose jointed individual may benefit from flexibility training and vice versa. 

In terms of flexibility training or stretching, lets quickly cover what we know it can do, what we know it can't do, and what we're not really sure of.

Stretching: Purpose and Uses

Step 1: Stretch. Step 2: Scale fence. Step 3: Consume the humans.

1) Warming up - Technically speaking most stretching is not the best idea as a warm up. A specific type of stretching known as dynamic stretches may be beneficial to prime your nervous system and warm up your soft tissue, but any type of static stretching or long term stretching should be avoided. The main reason is that true stretching when done correctly causes your muscles to relax at a neurological level. You do not want to neurologically prep your muscles to relax right before you go workout. I really shouldn't have to tell you that.

2) Increasing Flexibility/Range of Motion - So this is another one that is mostly supported but some people dispute. There are those who claim the only way to increase range of movement is to move. Technically speaking stretching isn't really moving, it's holding, so that's kind of the basis of their argument. Even so, I saw stretching used effectively to restore range of motion in a vast number of orthopedic rehab patients. It is important to note, however, that the types of stretches used were more frequently active than static, although both have their place in a rehab program.

3) Speeding Recovery - Not a lot of evidence to support this. One of the largest fitness industry myths. A lot of people claim stretching after a workout will help you recover faster. To my knowledge there is no scientific literature that supports this specific claim. I've seen reports that've said stretching during your workout increases muscle growth (because you're turning your muscles off and therefore forcing them to work harder; it's kind of like added resistance in a really weird, backwards way) and I've seen papers that've shown more significant increases in range of motion with stretching prior to a workout. The specific topic of recovery is a difficult one because it's a fairly nebulous term.

4) Decreasing Pain - This was also frequently a reason stretching regimens were prescribed. Sometimes inflammation can be caused by an overly active or tight muscle. Causing the muscle to relax will then alleviate that pain. Also, the muscle itself may be inflamed so once again, relaxing the inflammation away will help to reduce some of the pain. The one thing that is important to note is that in most cases the stretching is not doing much more than relieving the pain. As I mentioned above there's no real evidence to suggest it aids in the recovery of damaged muscles so as far as pain management is concerned, it's similar to an aleve. It may help the inflammation and pain, but mostly it's just helping you not feel it for a while. 

So, now that your familiar with the different uses of stretching, lets cover the different types of stretches.

1) Static - These are your parent's stretches. Move into stretch position. Hold for 30-60 seconds. This type of stretching is best following a workout when your muscles are already warmed up if your goal is increased flexibility or range of motion. These stretches can also be done periodically throughout the course of the day to help reduce pain or discomfort. A humorously labeled but accurate chart of some basic static stretches can be found below.
2) Dynamic - These are the types of stretches that are useful as part of a warm up. They are called dynamic because they are always done moving and the actual stretch is a result of the movement rather than the result of holding a position. When choosing dynamic stretches you should try to choose stretches that in some way resemble a movement you are going to do or at the very least target the body parts your going to be working on. A short video with some great dynamic stretches can be found here.

3) Ballistic - These are "bouncing" stretches or stretches where you stretch into the position and then rapidly bounce, trying to push yourself further. Don't do this, they're freakin terrible for you. Bounce, bounce, bounce POP. Bad news. Stay away. Some people incorrectly use the term ballistic when they mean dynamic, which is okay I suppose, but true ballistic stretching should be avoided.

4) PNF Stretching - proprioceptive neural facilitation stretches. You need a partner to do this. Basically what you do is a static stretch for ~ 10 seconds, then you push against resistance (from your partner) for ~7 s. When you then relax following the contraction, your partner should be able to push the stretch further than they could initially. You can perform the contraction either isometrically (no motion at the joint) or dynamically (motion at the joint). For isometrics use the 7s hold as a guideline while for the dynamic contraction simply go through the full range of motion for that joint against resistance. When I do this with my clients I'll usually first do 1 static stretch for 30 s, followed by an isometric PNF stretch and then finally a dynamic PNF stretch.  This type of stretching does what it does by taking advantage of a specific reflex that causes relaxation of the muscle. It's a bit complicated but if you want to know more you can google Golgi Tendon Organs and the Golgi Tendon reflex, 'cuz that's what you're using and that's what you're doing.

5) Active/Isolated stretching - The first time someone told me about this type of stretching I was somewhat confused. It is also worth mentioning that there is little to no scientific data available on this type of stretching so there's no conclusive evidence it works. That being said, if you've been in the fitness world long enough you should know that "no conclusive evidence," means just that. We can't say for certain, but that doesn't mean it can't help. Basically what you do in active isolated stretching is stretch as far as you can go and then using an assistive device (a strap or rope) you push the stretch further and hold it for a few seconds before relaxing. The idea is that you are "getting your body used to being in a new position" which should theoretically lead to increases in range of motion. I've never had any success with it but I read an article by a contortionist who swears by it. Personally, I think he's being paid off.

Becoming invincible isn't always about being the biggest and the strongest. In order to train and train hard you have to keep your body in proper condition. Only doing strength and cardiovascular training with no flexibility work is like putting a huge engine in a car without modifying the suspension. You need to improve every aspect of your fitness. They're all connected and they all assist one another. Strength can help you push a stretch further, while increased range of motion can help you perform a movement more efficiently which then leads back to better strength gains. 

So there you have it. Who should stretch, when to stretch and what kind of stretches you should do. Hope you guys find it useful. Now get out there and go DO something.

Good luck and good lifting. 


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