We’ve all done it. You wake up in the morning after a good night’s sleep, you sit up in bed and break out that full body cat stretch. The one that feels absolutely amazing from your fingertips to your toes. It’s an amazing feeling. Stretching increases our range of motion and gets our bodies ready for whatever we’re going to ask of them next. But why would you twist yourself into a pretzel in the name of flexibility? What’s the importance of stretching as it relates to total body fitness?
First, what the heck is stretching?
As you move your body, whether during exercise, or just day to day activity, components of the tiny fibers in your muscles called sarcomeres begin to overlap their thicker and thinner bits. In essence, the smallest units of your muscles begin to bunch up on themselves. When you stretch, you’re literally pulling these overlaps apart, letting the muscle elongate. Stopping at the point these sarcomeres are at their full extension is where you feel the amazing morning stretch feeling. You’re literally re-aligning any misaligned muscle and connective tissues (fascia) in the direction of the stretch.
To put it into a very rough example, think of a piece of string bunched up on itself. If you grab the two ends of the string, and pull them in opposite directions, the string smooths out and becomes longer and less likely to tangle and form knots. Your muscles work in a similar way.
All that sounds pretty good, but is there a proper way to stretch? By definition, stretching is simply elongating the muscle, so it’s a pretty straightforward act. There are lots of stretching routines online you can follow, like this guy:
If he’s not for you, there are plenty of other options on YouTube that could help get you started. Just realize, there should be no pain during stretching – if you feel pain, you’ve probably stretched too far and may be damaging the muscle. Mild discomfort is OK, but stretching shouldn’t hurt.
This last point kind of rattled my brain a little bit. No pain? so how do you progress in stretching then? If that point is true, how do you increase flexibility from a physiological point of view?
Our friends at MIT (a buncha people far smarter than me) helped me understand it in their physiology of stretching article:
“When a muscle is stretched, some of its fibers lengthen, but other fibers may remain at rest. The current length of the entire muscle depends upon the number of stretched fibers (similar to the way that the total strength of a contracting muscle depends on the number of recruited fibers contracting). According to SynerStretch you should think of “little pockets of fibers distributed throughout the muscle body stretching, and other fibers simply going along for the ride”. The more fibers that are stretched, the greater the length developed by the stretched muscle.”
What I take away from that is that through consistent stretching over time, you stand a greater chance of recruiting these “little pockets” of fibers and stretching them as well. This logic bears out when you look at someone with amazing flexibility like a dancer or yogi who has been practicing their passion for years. These people can practically put their kneecaps in their mouths if they wanted to. So if you want to dine on your own kneecaps, you can do it. Just make sure you take your time and follow the mantra of consistency over time.
A couple of tips for proper stretching:
- Warm up your muscles before stretching (jog in place for a few minutes, rotate the arms, jumping jacks etc.)
- Engage (slightly flex) the muscle being stretched while stretching it.
- Hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds
- Breathe through your stretch. Exhale “into” the stretch, hold the stretch and inhale, then see if you can deepen the stretch a little (without pain) during the next exhalation and hold for the remainder of your stretch.
So why should we stretch at all?
We touched on this a little in paragraph three: stretching regularly eliminates overlapping in the sarcomeres, and can help with preventing the “knotting” of muscle tissue that might require massage therapy or foam rolling to help remove. In addition to this, stretching regularly will increase your range of motion; meaning that you can more comfortably live your life – in all aspects – regardless of your age. This also means that you’re less likely to hurt yourself when you’re working out, running, practicing yoga or any sort of exercise. During these practices, you’re more likely to push your body and if the muscles are being pushed past their ability to stretch because they’re tight, then you run the risk of inuring them. Especially if you’re holding heavy weights, or going for a longer stride.
Stretching can also help improve your posture. A kind of “duh” point, when you really stop and think about it. If your muscles are longer and capable of a more natural, full range of motion, then they won’t be doing things like tugging the opposite direction required by proper posture (you see this all the time in slumped shoulders and nerd neck!) This also leads to the easing of pain caused by your skeletal structure and your muscles (or two opposing muscles) fighting for what goes where inside your body.
Stretching regularly can also increase your circulation and calm your nervous system.
Hopefully this sheds a little light on the benefits of stretching and gets you considering adding it in as a fairly serious part of your routine. Your body will thank you for it, especially as you age!
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