Stretching Myths Busted
A Lastics fan posted this article about stretching on our Facebook page and asked me what I thought. But before we can get into the meat of it, it's important to call attention to the title. It concerns me when I see headlines like, The Truth About Stretching, because it implies that there is one truth, which just isn't so when it comes to people and their bodies. It suggests that everyone is the same, all the time, which of course, is nothing short of false.
I do agree with author, Beth Skwarecki, that flexible is strong and strong is flexible, and believe that the two are inextricably linked, without exception. Beyond that, what follows are additional assertions put forth about stretching, not just in the article in question, but in the field of fitness generally.
Stretching Doesn’t Cure Muscle Soreness
As far as whether stretching relieves soreness, I don’t disagree, that it shouldn’t - in theory - especially when considering that stretching can, and should, cause soreness, as the author states. I do agree that, if you are stretching properly, you should feel sore because of exactly the reasons the article states, "It causes a change (damage) in the fibers (little tears) that then prompts rebuilding."
The key here, however, is not if you stretch, but rather how you stretch. Just as you would feel sore after running or lifting weights, if you are stretching to the point that you challenge your muscles (which is the only way to increase flexibility), you should feel it afterwards. In other words, your muscles should respond to the work the same way they do to being challenged in other ways like strength training and cardio. It doesn't make sense that every other kind of physical activity would make you sore, but not stretching. It's not logical.
I personally don’t get relief stretching a sore muscle. However, I have many, many students who tell me they do. So something is happening inside their bodies that I respect and I'm not convinced it can be written off as a phenomenon that occurs only in the mind. Just because something isn't understood by those who study it, doesn't mean it's not real.
Stretching Robs You of Strength in the Short Term (But Is Good for You in the Long Term)
Well of course it does. Stretching and strengthening are opposites that balance one another. You wouldn't lift weights to stretch and you wouldn't stretch to build muscle - to condition muscles, yes, but not to build strength. The New York Times wrote about this a while back. It was so crazy a thought process. I explain why here in a previous post.
Stretching Doesn’t Lengthen Your Muscles
The last part of the article is the trickiest where it suggests muscles can’t lengthen. It states:
“One of the leading theories is that stretching doesn’t lengthen your muscles; it just changes your perception of pain, so that when the muscle gets stretched, you don’t mind as much.”
No. Just no.
In just that short sentence you can see how this is the kind of contradiction that creates all the confusion currently surrounding stretching and flexibility training. While the issue is more semantic than anything else, it is nonetheless misleading. They've confused the words lengthening and stretching with one another. It says “when the muscle gets stretched,” and at the same time it says, "stretching doesn't lengthen the muscle." But logic would indicate that stretching something does inherently lengthen it.
Most likely they mean to say that the physiological length of a muscle can’t be changed (like I’m not going to suddenly become 3 inches taller). But then they should explain it that way. Asserting that muscles can't be lengthened fails to consider the effect that everyday living has on our bodies. We know muscles get tight. We know they pull on us. We know they hold stress. We know they change with age. All of those things contract the muscles, make them “shorter" and make us feel tighter. But even then, compared to a strength analogy, it would be like saying the natural state of a muscle is weak and flabby and because of that, it can't be strengthened. This type of thinking fails to recognize the behavior of our muscles in our bodies and their response to moving through life itself.
Picture a person slouched and collapsed versus one standing up straight. The process of going from slumped to erect is a factor of both stretching and lengthening. So perhaps a better way to look at this is to see that stretching properly returns muscles to their natural, most elongated state, (that's why it feels so damn good :) undoing and releasing the tightening, shortening, shrinking effects of time, lifestyle, habits, neglect, etc…
Incidentally, the article mentions dynamic stretching, and this same principle holds true with regard to it as well. While it has in fact come into favor, it shares the same flaws as static stretching, PNF and AI, because without the right form underneath the movement, none of them can be effective. Meaning, if you bend to go farther, which is what most people do, regardless of the application, you're not stretching. You're collapsing, and you therefore defeat the purpose of the stretch. It's the path of least resistance and what the body does naturally. But it's bent. Not stretched. So again, it's not about if you stretch, but how you use your body to do it.
When to Stretch (and When Not to)
Finally, I question the statement that stretching doesn’t prevent injury because, “You haven’t changed anything about the way your joints or muscles move.” This is just silliness. Again, if we are looking at innate movement patterns, that's one thing. I agree that there are structural realities born into our bodies. But tight muscles around a joint absolutely affect the way it moves. And it goes both ways. Loose muscles can be as problematic as tight muscles.
To understand flexibility is to understand that it exists on a continuum with "too tight" as one extreme and "too loose" at the other. Too much stretching can cause injury for the same reason that not enough can. Muscles and joints work together to create movement. They need to be balanced for the body to feel good and function at its best.
There needs to be more conversation about how you train the whole body and less about stretches focused on one body part, like hamstrings, for example. We need more to be grounded in the concept of form, technique and methodology. Lots of assertions and claims get thrown around, but the how of it all is not sufficiently addressed. This article was a case in point. Every other type of exercise talks about proper form and technique, but oddly, not in the world of flexibility.
I don't know why the views on stretching, more than other kinds of workouts, tend to be so illogical, short-sighted and overly complicated. Just apply some common sense: Bent is not stretched and having a strong, flexible body that moves freely is a body that feels good.
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