To Stretch or Not to Stretch? Part 2

By Chris Mullins
In part 1 (last month) we learned that just because a muscle is tight doesn’t mean it needs to be stretched. We also learned that there have been quite a few studies (such as this one from Stephen F. Austin State University and this very comprehensive re-analysis from the University of Zagreb, Croatia)  that static stretching prior to exercise may actually inhibit athletic performance. However, this doesn’t mean stretching is completely pointless. It simply means you need to establish which muscle(s) and type of stretch is right for you, then ensure you are doing it correctly.

 

How? The case for stretching.
Let’s simplify this for a moment: almost every muscle in the body has a counterpart that performs the opposite function. Biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings, all the way out to the muscles that open and close your hand. Also, muscles are dumb. They just contract or relax based on what our brain tells them. If a muscle on one side of a joint is contracting too much (think “always on”), the ones on the other side can’t do their job as effectively. This proverbial tug-of-war explains why both your quads/hip flexors and your hamstrings can feel tight. The question is, “which one do I stretch?” If you are going to stretch, let’s focus on the one that’s “always on.” In the hip flexor/hamstring example, that would be the hip flexors (so stop stretching your hamstrings, people!). When performed with proper posture and breathing, stretching can be very effective.
Let’s look at a couple examples using areas that are commonly tight in many people (and closely related to prolonged sitting): the hip flexors and pecs. First, I’ll cover what not to do, followed by some tips for effective stretching.

The image below was found under the search “hip flexor stretch.” Note the lean back of the torso and the extreme reach of the trail leg, with the big arch in the lower back. The only things that are being stretched in this picture are ligaments in the lower back and front of the hip.

Anatomy alert: Ligaments are passive tissues that connect bone to bone. Unlike muscles and tendons, once ligaments are stretched, they remain stretched for-ev-er… for-ev-er. (If you’ve never seen the movie The Sandlot, you might not get that reference.  So Enjoy.)  Over-stretched ligaments compromise the integrity of a joint, so we want to be sure we’re stretching muscles.

Hip flexor stretch, or back-breaker?

For a hip flexor stretch, try the following:

Key points to remember: Keep the chin tucked, ribs down, hips square under the torso. For the leg that’s down, make sure the ear, shoulder, hip and knee are in line. Keeping this alignment, squeeze the buttcheek and  slightly lean forward into the stretch for a big exhale, release out of the stretch and inhale, then repeat. If your form is good, but you don’t feel any stretch in the hip or front of the thigh, then you just might not need this stretch.

Another often-abused stretch is for the pecs. Let’s break down the accompanying photo, starting with the obvious forward head posture and right shoulder hiked way higher than the left. Although tougher to notice in this photo, you can also see how her right shoulder is “pointy” (definitely a technical term…). Her upper arm is way behind her body and has rotated internally and into something called “anterior glide”-which basically means her upper arm has drifted forward in the socket, causing her to crank on-you guessed it-the ligaments in the front of her shoulder.

The classic “pointy shoulder” stretch.

For an effective pec stretch, a foam roller can be used to stretch both pecs at the same time and can be a great chest opener for those who are hunched at a desk or behind the wheel all day. Both the foam roller and wall pec stretches are pictured.

Wall pec stretch

 

 

Key points to remember: Keep the chin tucked, ribs down, hips square under torso (sound familiar?). The arm can be parallel to the ground, or a little above or below to hit different spots of the pec, but in all cases, the shoulder should be down away from the ear (don’t shrug). Reach with the fingertips, while at the same time pulling the shoulder blade toward the spine (imagine the arm being pulled in both directions). Lean into the stretch slightly for a big exhale, come out of the stretch and inhale, then repeat.

Foam roller pec stretch

 

Key points to remember: Keep the chin tucked, ribs down (is it possible to beat a dead horse with a broken record?) and back flat against the roller throughout the stretch. Reach with the fingertips to make as wide of an arc as possible. Bring the shoulder blades together and exhale as the arms move out to the side.
When implemented correctly, stretching can be an effective tool to help relax muscles that are “always on.” As always, it depends on your specific needs. So before you jump into a stretch, ask yourself “why.” If your answer is “because its tight,” dig a little deeper. Did you just get out of bed? Did you have a particularly hard workout in the past couple of days? Have you had a stressful day or week? And if you do decide to stretch, make sure you do it at the right time and the right way. Putting a little extra thought into it could mean the difference between a crappy workout and a new PR.

Aside from personal training, Chris is an experienced distance runner and also coaches for a national charity organization.  Feel free to email him at chris@thetrainingroomboston.com.

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