I am sure that you have all sooner or later heard how important stretching is for your exercise routine! Some say it should be done before to warm muscles and avoid injuries, some say it should be done after to avoid sore muscles the day after, however, some yoga practices just involve stretching and nothing else. So the question hit our little bat rather naturally, what does stretching do for us?! Why is it important?! And more to the point is it just important as a part of an exercise routine, or does it have benefits as a stand-alone exercise?! Well, I am assuming it does since yoga exists, however, yoga still involves some other activities like breathing and balancing! So let’s see what can we find out about stretching, just stretching, not stretching as a part of something else. (Skip to the end for the benefits of stretching, it even helps mental health!!)
What happens when we stretch?
So let’s start by taking a closer look at our muscles while we stretch. For a change, there are two opposing reactions. (seems like anything related to yoga has two opposing forces!) One will tell the muscle to relax and allow the stretch to happen, so the muscle will soften and lengthen. While another reaction will be to tense and pull back so that we do not overstretch! This is why stretching should be done gradually cos the faster the stretch happens, the stronger will the response to tighten and pull back be. (We usually overstretch and hurt when we fall, after all, so sudden stretching for our reactors will mean an accident) Stretching regularly will tell the sensors in our muscles that the new length is also acceptable and normal, and so they will allow our muscles to relax and lengthen more as time goes by. That is why our range of motion will increase over time when we stretch often!
Another incredible benefit of stretching is the alignment of our tissue. As our fleshy parts are stretched, (of course, bones do not stretch), they will have the chance to repair and straighten out. Seems like just like strings there could be some entanglement in there, (like the knots we hear about and tight muscles), and by stretching we get rid of these kinks and pains! So basically, yes, stretching, just on its own still has amazing benefits!!
If we take an even closer look we find out that the muscle can stretch up to one and a half times its normal length. This happens since muscles are created from strands of fiber called sarcomeres. These sarcomeres are created in turns by layers of overlapping thick and thin myofilaments. When the stretch happens gradually, these slides slowly and that is how our muscles elongate, letting us reach further into our stretch. If the muscle thinks it is going to hurt itself some of these sarcomeres contracts. The more the muscle thinks it’s gonna hurt the more of these contracts, same thing happens when we are trying to lift something. That is why the muscles bulge when we lift heavyweight since all of the sarcomeres will be contracted. On the other hand, when all the fibers are at their resting place (maximum they can stretch) the stretch will then start to affect the surrounding tissue and cause us harm. So we aim to manage to reach the resting place of the muscle and hold the stretch there. It is very important when stretching that we do not strain or remain in an uncomfortable position! Be where you are today and let the stretch grow by time, go to your maximum length and keep it there! Not only you will not hurt but you will be positively surprised by improving your performance as time goes by!
But is only our muscle stretched?
Well, no, and this is the tricky part! While stretching is great for you, overstretching will actually harm you. It’s all fine and well when you’re stretching the muscles but the pull will also affect the tendons, ligaments, and joints. As long as the muscle can deal with the stretch, these will not really be affected, and that is what we want. Once the muscle is at its limit these will start to be affected and stretching the ligaments, joints, and tendons is NOT something we are trying to achieve! Although, new research is going for stretching all that can be stretched, however, they still warn about overstretching so the idea of not overdoing it still counts!!
What happens when we stretch the surrounding tissue?
So now let’s divide it further into tendons, ligaments, and finally joints.
Tendons are what connect our muscles to our bones. They serve to absorb some of the strain on the muscle to prevent injury and are a major factor in our flexibility and movement. Their function is mainly that of a spring, distributing energy and opening and closing as needed! Unlike the muscle, the tendon has a very short range of elasticity and can be harmed if stretched even up to 4% of its length.
They actually can be trained during stretching, however, we aim to strengthen them rather than stretch them. Tendons are strengthened by the duration of the stretch. Holding a stretch will not only allow the muscle to adapt to its new length and normalize it for future reference but also train the tendons to perform better and open more easily to the stretch. (They can also be trained by lifting weights slowly, not exactly related to stretching but still interesting to know and the concept is rather similar to that of keeping a stretch.)
Another way I came across to improve the tendon’s performance is fast and repetitive small stretches. This helps to increase the bounce rate of the tendons. This is done by stretching to an easy, comfortable stretch and pulling it back right away, for example, fast kicks or punches. This could also work as a great warming up as stretching is best done with your muscles already warmed up.
Ligaments are chords that provide structure to our skeleton. These function mainly as the steering of our joints, allowing movement in one direction and not the other while holding our bones together. Of course, they still need some flexibility but these are more directly related to strength and stability, rather than flexibility. While stretching will inevitably affect them indirectly and will allow blood flow to circulate better (so they do benefit from our exercise) they tend to tear easily when stretched so aiming to stretch the ligaments is not recommended (unless you’re aiming for the ligaments around the womb during pregnancy, but that is a topic on its own and we will not dive into that here). Also having stretched-out joint ligaments will affect negatively our stability, and that is definitely not something to aim for.
Joints are basically bone sockets that allow bones to move against each other (or simply letting one bone connect against the next as some joints don’t really allow any movement). Now, these are really not something you want to mess with as they ARE your skeleton’s structure, and having a dislocated joint means a trip to the Emergency Department. They benefit from stretching exercises indirectly as having healthy and strong surrounding tissue (ligaments, tendons, and muscles) will reduce the strain on your joints and even help relieve to a certain degree from the pain that may be already present.
Best stretching practice
Since it helps our body recover, stretching is recommended before bedtime. This will help prepare our body to relax and go into healing mode, which basically is all that sleeping is about! So how should we go about our stretching routine? And how do we introduce it to our daily activities?
- Start with some rapid short stretches. Keep them small and easy and increase gradually as you warm up. This will prevent going into your stretches cold.
- Never stay in any painful position. As we proceed to our static stretches (reaching our maximum stretching ability and holding the stretch between 30 to 60 seconds) make sure to not overstretch and use your breath to move out of uncomfortable positions. Tension is good, we want to feel a little tension, but no pain or major discomfort.
- Go into your stretches gradually. This counts for both the length of your stretch and the intensity. Practice slowly and give breaks, also do not overdo it with repetitions, and especially if you are new, maybe try alternate days rather than daily until you get more used to it.
And finally, let’s take a look at the benefits stretching has!
- Improves your mental health!! Believe it or not, stretching helps your brain. It balances hormones, increases blood flow and circulation, and encourages you to live in the moment since you will need to focus on your body movements. This helps to improve your mood, clear your mind, and reduce stress and anxiety.
- Improves flexibility. As most of our article has shown, stretching allows your body to be more limber and flexible. This will improve your performance in other activities and help to reduce the risk of injury during your daily activities.
- Increases your balance. Many stretching positions recure a certain degree of balancing and coordination, not to mention an improved awareness of your body and how it works.
- Improves posture. Since it helps to relieve tightness and soreness, keeping the correct posture will become rather natural.
- Helps to heal tissue damage. During the stretch, the tissue is aligned and so has the opportunity to heal itself. It also helps blood flow and circulation which in turn makes the healing process even easier.
So our recommendation is that you do make stretching a daily practice even if you do not practice any other sports (especially before bedtime). If you do practice sports, stretching helps before to prevent injury, AND after to help remove soreness and any stress or injuries your body might have suffered (of course within limits, it’s not some magic wand!). Hope you found this article helpful and if you have any comments or tips, feel free to leave them below, we’re always happy to interact with you!
Wishing you Health!!