Is Stretching Useless?
By Tyler Woodward
Stretching is the new brushing your teeth of the fitness world. If you don’t properly warmup and stretch before and after each workout you’re destined to end up sore, tight, and injured. But is this really true? What does stretching actually accomplish and how does it work?
The Benefits of Stretching:
All you need is a quick search on the interwebs and you’ll find a billion websites going on and on about the benefits of stretching. And while I’m generally not a fan of stretching for most purposes, I’d be ignorant to say it’s useless. The most commonly listed benefits of stretching are:
- Improves Mobility, Flexibility, & Range of Motion
- Improves Posture
- Reduces Risk of Injury
- Reduces Stress
- Reduces Muscle Soreness (AKA Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
I’d argue that the only true benefit of stretching is its ability to reduce muscle soreness, as this has been shown time and time again.
To get to the bottom of stretching let’s look at exactly what stretching is.
What Is Stretching?:
Stretching is a form of exercise or movement in which you lengthen a muscle by placing the two joints it attaches to as far apart as you can. Muscles in many ways are analogous to ropes that are attached at either end to fixed points. A muscle is attached on either side to two different bones and runs from its origin (one end) to insertion (the other end). When you contract a muscle you are pulling the origin towards the insertion point.
The biceps, for example, insert at the shoulder and end (the origin) right below your elbow. When you contract a muscle you’re flexing or shortening it, think flexing your bicep, as you pull your upper arm towards your shoulder. think flexing. In the rope analogy this is like dangling a loose rope without much tension.
On the other side of the equation when you stretch or lengthen a muscle you are maximizing the distance between the muscles origin and insertion. In the rope analogy, this is like grabbing the rope from both ends and pulling it as far apart as possible. For your biceps this happens as you straighten your arm and pull it back behind your body, if you do this now you’ll feel the stretch in your biceps.
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Why Do You Stretch?:
The majority of people stretch in order to “loosen” a “tight” muscle. Wwe know that a “tight” muscle is actually stretched muscle then why does stretching it even move make it feel loose?
When you hold a stretch for a period of time in any muscle and then let go you can feel a reduction in muscle “tone” which we often refer to as tightness. Many people believe that when you do this you are physically increasing the length of your muscle and its respective muscle fibers.
You can imagine this like pulling the two ends of the rope as far apart as possible and when you let go the rope is physically longer. We all know this isn’t actually true for a rope. The only way a rope can physically stretch or increase the rope’s length is if you partially tear the rope, physically increasing lengthening, but also compromising its structure. If you were to maximally stretch this rope again, it’s a lot easier to lengthen it and even to physically increase its length, but eventually the rope is going to tear in half and split. The question is why are muscles any different?
The reason that after stretching a muscle it feels loose isn't because you’ve physically lengthened it, but because you’ve “overridden” your nervous system or your brain. Your brain dictates how “tight” a muscle is, what we refer to as muscle tone. Literally meaning how much of the muscle is active at rest. If your muscle is really tight, you have a lot of muscle tone and your muscle is relatively active even at rest. It’s like your muscle is chronically in a contracted/flexed state.
When you stretch a muscle for a period of time you’re tightening it even more, so when you go back to this resting position it feels looser. The length of the muscle hasn’t actually changed, you’ve just desensitized your nervous system, so it doesn’t feel as tight in this position. This sort of thing happens all the time, but in a variety of different ways.
It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when you wake up Thanksgiving morning and smell the turkey roasting in the oven. The longer you stay in the room, the less you smell the turkey. A few hours later your family shows up and comments on how delicious the turkey smells, but you no longer smell it. The smell hasn’t gone away, you’ve just become accustomed to it, so you no longer notice it. The same thing happens when you stretch.
Your previously tight muscle after stretching now feels loose, not because your muscle is physically longer, but because your nervous system became adjusted to the muscle being stretched. Which is why when you release that stretch and the muscle returns to its more neutral resting position, it no longer feels tight.
It’s for this reason that stretching is temporary. After a few hours the muscle often feels tight again and you have to stretch it again to “loosen” it back up. The same thing happens when you wake up the next morning and the muscle is tight all over again.
Maybe the answer is not to further stretch the muscle, but to pull it back into a more neutral position, less stretched position.
Why Is Your Muscle Tight?:
Muscles work in pairs. When one muscle is tight or lengthened, it’s opposite is shortened or flexed. When your hamstring (muscle on the back of the leg) is “tight” your quads (muscle in the front of your legs) must be “loosened”. So you could make the argument that if you have tight hamstrings you need to strengthen the quads to “even them out”. While this makes sense logically, it might not be the best approach…
In reality, muscles are slaves to their joint positions. Think about it, the entire purpose of the muscular system is to move your joints (AKA your bones), so you can walk, run, throw, ect. If a muscle is “tight” it means that the two bones that it connects two are “stuck” in a position in which they are further away from one another. While stretching may provide a temporary relief, in order to make more permanent changes we need to alter your posture to put your joints/bones in a more neutral position, so the muscles that connect them aren’t so tight.
Your posture is a representation of the position of your joints at any given time. It's The relative location of your bones, muscles, and joints as you sit, stand, lie down or move. This is why some people have tight hamstrings, others have tight quads, and some have neither. Both the hamstrings and quads attach to the pelvis, depending on how your pelvis is oriented will determine which, if any, of these muscles are tight. To improve your posture we need to get these “tight” muscles to “turn on” to pull our bones into a more neutral position and to allow the “shortened” or activated muscles to “turn off”.
How Do I Improve My Posture?:
Sadly, there's no size fits all answer to this question. While we all start off with more or less identical skeletons we all manage gravity differently and subject our body to various activities. The same exercise that works for you could potentially make someone else worse by further reinforcing their current posture. But I won't leave you hanging...
If you're looking to take the next steps to improve your posture here a few recommended Coaches that will be able to assess your posture and give you the direction you need:
Luckily, for UMZU product subscription members you have free access to UMZUfit and our coach Tyler Woodward (me). And if you're not already an UMZUfit member click here to sign today and schedule a movement assessment!
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading
Until next time… be good