The Stretching Myth
One of the most common fitness mistakes people make is subscribing to the myth that static stretching is warm up.
Static stretching is pulling and holding your muscle in a stretch for an extended period of time. In the past this used to be the standard and was commonly recommended, however in the past 20 years we have come to learn that it may actually have the opposite effect. Static stretching your muscles prior to exercise and activity has not only been shown to increase your risk for injury but also may effect your performance in training or competition, as well it does absolutely nothing to actually warm you up.
Think of your muscle like a piece of taffy, if you unwrap it and try to pull it apart you’ll just break it. Instead rub it in your hands first and slowly start to massage it and then pull it apart and all of a sudden it’s more flexible. This is what happens to your muscle, pulling it apart when it is stiff and tense can easily lead to pulling a muscle or even more dramatic, a tear, in which part of or your whole muscle might separate from it’s connection point to the bone. Ouch.
Just like the average American, muscles also carry a lot of tension. The more you work your muscles, the more tension they tend to carry. This can be beneficial that the tension can help with protection from increased physical stress (protecting your bones, joints, blood vessels, organs) as well aid in your performance by giving you a literal “spring” in your step. This is also known as elasticity and like a slingshot, when you contract your muscle, it’ll tend to “snap” back into its starting point. By static stretching prior to exercise, you are effectively reducing this amount of tension and elasticity from your muscles and decreasing your overall performance during your training or competition. (Be careful though of too much tension, which can lead to cramping and spasm.)
When I say that static stretching does absolutely nothing for warm up, it’s because it doesn’t. You’re not actively moving your body or engaging the muscle in anyway therefore heat is not being produced and your body isn’t really working at an increased level, the muscle itself is not being utilized and is no more prepared for the increased stress of exercise. A racecar driver isn’t going to shift his car into neutral and push it around the track to warm it up and you shouldn’t do that to your body.
Stretching is good for warm up (I am sure you’re confused now), but I am referring to dynamic stretching. With dynamic stretching you are not passively pulling on your muscle however you are starting to engage your muscles in a low impact fashion that you are pushing your range of motion further each time. For example; swinging your arms back and forth or up and down. Kicking your legs out in front or behind, doing some torso twists, etc. This way you not only engaging the muscle but you are actively producing heat (essentially you are warming it up) and still maintaining tension on the muscle for exercise.
That’s not to say that static stretching itself doesn’t have a place either. Static stretching has consistently been shown to increase flexibility and have a crucial role in helping reduce tension as well as have it’s place within rehab and injury prevention. The ideal time to static stretch is following a cool down after your workout. Your muscles are already warm and tense, it’s the best time to really focus on breathing long and slow, taking the opportunity to relax and release that tension you still hold on your body. Each stretch should be pushed right until you feel a slight discomfort in the muscle and be held for no less than 30 seconds. You can push the stretch a little more as you relax, but don’t push it to far to the point of pulling a muscle.
Chronic injuries and bad posture are often attributed to lack of strength or tension from certain muscle groups but could also be caused by too much tension from other muscle groups. Back pain for example may be caused by too much tension in the abdominals, chest and hip flexor muscles in addition to lack of strength from the back muscles. It is important that you work on stretching out the opposing muscle groups you are strengthening as well to have an important balance for your muscles.
Stretching itself can be considered a workout as well when done properly.
Yoga is a very popular and very effective form of stretching that has been shown to burn substantial amount of calories as well as increase flexibility, balance and core strength. Don't have a yoga mat yet? Try out this one.
Overall stretching is an important factor in physical fitness and plays a key role in increasing flexibility and reducing overall tension and stress. It is important to include dynamic and static stretching into your exercise routine to not only help reduce injury but also stress and inflammation.
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