Stretching Myths Debunked
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.
Stretching Doesn’t Cure Muscle Soreness
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.
That said, and while appreciating that everyone is different, I also agree that if you are stretching properly, you should feel sore because of exactly the reasons the article states: It causes a change in the fibers (little tears), known as "damage," that then prompts a hypertrophic response. The key here however is not if you stretch, but rather how and with what technique. Just like you would feel sore after running or lifting weights, if you are stretching to the point that you challenge the flexibility of your muscles, you should feel it afterwards. Your muscles should respond the same way they do to other challenges. It doesn't make sense that you would be sore from every other kind of physical activity, but not stretching.
The same principle holds true with regard to dynamic stretching. 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 are 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.
As far as whether stretching relieves soreness, I don’t disagree, that it shouldn’t - in theory - especially when considering that we just said stretching can, and should, cause soreness. 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.
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.”
In just that short sentence you can see how this is the kind of contradiction that leads to confusion. The issue is more a semantic one than it is one of flexibility, but it's 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 grow 3 inches). 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, 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 and their response to moving through life itself.
Picture a person slouched and collapsed versus one standing up straight. In my mind’s eye, 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…
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 the body. 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 and need to be balanced for the body to feel and function at its best.
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. 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, but oddly, not in the world of flexibility.
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