Stretching is one of the most basic physical acts. Everyone, from a baby to a senior citizen, can enjoy a good stretch. The first thing many of us do upon waking is stretch our arms high above our head. It feels good while we’re doing it and we feel more refreshed afterward. Unfortunately, stretching is probably the most neglected component in health and fitness.
During exercise you contract, or shorten, your muscles. This constant shortening causes the muscles to become very tight. Just take a moment and clench your fist. That is similar to what happens to the contracted muscle – it becomes tight and rigid, feeling cramped and “heavy.” Now open your hand and stretch out the fingers. Doesn’t that feel good? So why do so many of us skip stretching? Oh, maybe we think we’re too busy, or we just don’t consider it important … after all, you don’t stretch to build muscle, do you? But as we’ll learn, stretching offers bodybuilders numerous benefits.
What to Stretch?
First let’s discuss what exactly is being stretched. For bodybuilders trying to add size and prevent injury, two types of tissue should be stretched on a regular basis: the fascia and the tendons and ligaments. While all are connective tissue, the fascia is more elastic in nature and should get the majority of your attention, especially as it relates to muscle growth. Stretching the tendons and ligaments is also important, however, and has a vital role in promoting strength gains.
Fascia is the protective sheath, or covering, that surrounds muscles. As people age, the soft texture of the fascia begins to harden and takes on the feel of an outer shell. Under certain circumstances, this could restrict muscle growth. Stretching helps keep the fascia soft and supple, allowing the growing muscle to expand. Think of a balloon. New balloons are more difficult to blow up because the rubber is tough. Repeatedly blowing up the balloon softens the rubber, making it easier to stretch and blow up.
Stretching the tendons will allow you to perform additional reps. Attached to the ends of tendons are small receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). You can think of GTOs as circuit breakers that act as safety switches. When a muscle is stretched beyond a certain point, the GTO fires and shuts the muscle down to prevent further contractions. If the GTOs didn’t exist you could easily tear a muscle or tendon from its attachment. You may have experienced this phenomenon: you’re repping out on dumbbell presses when your pecs just give out, with little or no warning. You may be sure you have the strength to force out a few extra reps, but the muscle just won’t contract.
Benefits Of Stretching
- Decreased Risk of Injury
A regular stretching program helps increase the length of muscles and tendons. This not only reduces muscle tension, but also increases their overall contractile range, which in turn makes them less susceptible to injury. By increasing the muscles’ contractile range, in other words, the range of motion around a joint, we increase the distance our limbs can move before muscle or tendon damage occurs. For example, the muscles and tendons in the back of our thighs are put under great stress when we kick a soccer ball. It only makes sense that the more flexible and pliable those muscles are, the further our leg can travel forward, thus decreasing the chance of injury.
- Increased Muscle and Athletic Ability
There is a myth that stretching too much will decrease joint stability and muscle power. This is absolutely untrue! By increasing muscle and tendon length, you are increasing the distance over which the muscles are able to contract. This results in a potential increase to the muscles’ strength and power. You’ll have actually increased your athletic ability, balancing ability, and muscle control.
- Reduced Muscle Soreness
Before long you’ll start experiencing tightness and soreness in your muscles the day after your workout, if you haven’t already. Walking up a set of stairs the day after leg training may be very painful indeed! The muscle soreness that follows strenuous physical activity is usually referred to as post-exercise muscle soreness or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This discomfort is the result of micro tears (minute tears within the muscle fibers), and a buildup of metabolic waste products, particularly lactic acid. Stretching helps alleviate this soreness by lengthening the individual muscle fibers, increasing blood and nutrient delivery to the muscles, and removing waste products.
- Reduced Antagonistic Pressure
Muscle fatigue is a major problem experienced by those who exercise regularly. It results in a decrease in both physical and mental performance. But increased flexibility through stretching can help reduce the effects of fatigue by taking pressure off the muscles being exercised. Most muscles in the body have an opposite or opposing muscle. When these opposing muscles (called antagonists) are more flexible, the working muscles (called agonists) do not have to exert as much force against the opposing muscles. Each movement of the working muscles actually takes less effort.
- Mentally Relaxing and Rewarding
With all the attention on the physical components of exercise, we often neglect the mental components. People who regularly stretch are more likely to feel good about themselves. This leads to a boost in self-confidence, which in turn helps enhance physical performance and motivate the individual to participate in regular exercise.