Adam Friedman, CSCS, CN, Special to the Mirror
Would you stretch more often if it weren’t so painful? For many of us, the major deterrent to making stretching a habit is the immediate pain or intense discomfort felt while stretching. Stretching should be pain-free and can easily become something that you look forward to – simply follow a few of the methods I’ll share below.
You are correct if stretching through pain seems counterintuitive to you. This is because that pain comes from your body’s internal defense mechanism, warning that if you continue stretching there will be a price. If you ignore those signals you can potentially create small microtraumas in the muscle, tendon, and/or ligament. If this stress is repeated over and over, more severe and chronic issues may ensue. In addition, the nervous system becomes traumatized, and overly sensitive or hyper-reactive to stimulus, which creates a dysfunction that renders the muscle weak. Temporarily the muscle will actually anticipate danger when there is none, creating a pathological paranoia-like state. Similar to when you have too much caffeine, the muscle becomes “on edge” and prevents you from focusing on the task at hand.
Conversely, if you stretch before reaching the threshold of pain, you will ensure that your muscles, tendons, and ligaments will maintain their integrity. You can achieve greater flexibility without the trauma. This is the best way to reach longer lasting results and prevent injury.
The Science of Stretching
The science of stretching has come a long way since your physical education class in elementary school. Today, educated trainers and physical therapists use methods designed to “outsmart” the body to achieve the desired effect. The trick is understanding the body’s defense mechanisms, and knowing how to prevent them from firing off.
Inside the muscle, tendons, and ligaments are sensory receptors, known as proprioceptors, which send and receive messages to and from the brain in a constant feedback loop. They help us to know where our body is in space, which is known as having a kinesthetic awareness.
The muscles’ sensory receptors, called muscle spindles, keep track of the length of the muscle. If the length-tension limits are breached, the muscle spindle has the duty to reflexively contract to protect the muscle from tearing. These reflexes exist throughout the body, like your eyelid quickly shutting to protect the cornea from being breached. It is this muscle reflex, referred to as myotatic, that is the resistance we feel when we are stretching beyond the muscle’s comfort zone.
The myotatic reflex is counterproductive to what we want to accomplish in stretching, so we have to learn to work with and around those receptors to get what we want. In the act of stretching we are inevitably going to create some tension in the muscles and connective tissue. What we can do is apply specific steps to alleviate the pre-existing tension from the start, and to turn down those over-reactive proprioceptors.
Alleviating the Tension
To accomplish this, start with a low intensity warm-up, such as walking or cycling, for 10 minutes. To know if you are sufficiently warmed-up, you should feel a light sweat and noticeable increase in body temperature.
Next, spend about 5 to 10 minutes using a foam roller to desensitize and relax the spots along your muscles that seem to push back on the foam roller and/or are painful. These pain centers are known as trigger points, and can be like muscle-inhibiting thorns unless the effort is made to release them. Think of foam rolling as a search and destroy mission. To learn how to foam roll, please visit www.advancedathletics.com and watch the free videos.
The combination of warming up and foam rolling will create a very friendly environment for your proprioceptors, and they will be more willing to work with you, which should be the objective throughout a stretch session.
When learning how to stretch, it’s also important to have a basic foundation of knowledge about the muscles you are stretching and how to position the body to create the desired effect. Here are some basic guidelines to follow during the act of stretching:
When you meet resistance in the muscles, make a conscious effort to breathe through the tension. Holding our breath is among many of our natural subconscious “fight or flight” tendencies when faced with a high level of discomfort or stress. However, holding the breath creates unnecessary added tension and is counterproductive to the result we want from stretching, bringing us closer to the threshold of pain.
When you are faced with the greater resistance in your muscles, after a proper inhalation make a concentrated effort to have a long exhalation. This act of focused breathing allows your subconscious mind to relax and let go of the need to fight because you are in control of what’s happening. As a result you will find that your body will respond much better, and achieve more flexibility.
Ease into and out of the stretch to decrease the likelihood of setting off the alarms, which creates a muscle-shortening reflex and negates potential improvements.
Short and Sweet
When stretching before an activity it is important to focus on stretching only to align the body by lengthening your body’s specific trouble areas that are chronically short and tight. Only hold those stretches for a short duration of around two seconds for five to ten repetitions, to prevent the myotatic reflex, and the potential inhibition of that muscle for any subsequent activities.
The absolute best time to stretch is after physical activity or at the end of your day. Physical activity involves repetitive muscular contractions that mostly leave your muscles in a shortened state, and they’ll stay shortened until you stretch them. It’s like taking two steps forward, then one step back.
After the workout, or at the end of your day, is when you should stretch longer and more intensely to leave your muscles in a relaxed state for the rest of your day or evening. I encourage you to take time for yourself every day to stretch toward making a new healthy habit.
In the next stretching article I will discuss the pros and cons of certain types of stretching, and which ones are the most effective.
Adam Friedman, CSCS, CN, CMT is a kinesiologist, certified strength & conditioning specialist, certified nutritionist, and certified massage technician. He is the founder of Advanced Athletics, Inc. located right next door to the world famous Gold’s Gym in Venice, on the corner of Sunset Ave. and Hampton Drive, one block east of Main Street. To schedule a complimentary assessment, please call 310.396.2100 or e-mail Adam at email@example.com. Otherwise, to learn more, visit www.advancedathletics.com.