Finding the Balance Part 5: Stretching
If you have read the other posts in this series, you will have noticed that I haven’t been that afraid to criticize some forms of exercise, although in most cases I am careful to make sure to also highlight that there are significant benefits to each and every one of them, just perhaps not so much in a biomechanical sense.
When it comes to stretching, however, (conventional static/passive stretching that is) it is difficult for me to have much that is positive to say because the reason for stretching is expressly biomechanical. So for this, "Finding the Balance", post it is not going to be a case of, "everything in moderation". It is controversial to say, but I am not sure conventional stretching on any level is worth doing. I say this after many hours pondering how responsible it is of me to say this. Is conventional stretching better than doing nothing at all? I really don't think so. I am only now starting to tell people this after years suspecting that this is the case, I had to explore the subject in-depth to be sure.
Before I get stuck into this topic, I should clarify what I mean by the term, "Stretching". There is "conventional stretching" or "passive stretching", and this would be what you generally see people doing. It doesn't require much movement, isn't a full body exercise, and doesn't require a load, or resistance. Then there is "dynamic stretching", this looks more like a warm-up exercise, but going through a range of motion, but can be isolated to certain regions or a full-body integrated exercise, but there is always movement involved (hence the term "dynamic"). Some exercise professionals, physios, and exercise physiologists are starting (through gritted teeth I might add) to advise against conventional stretching as the evidence builds up for its lack of efficacy and possible harms, so they are heading in the direction of dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is certainly a better option, but I would argue is incomplete in nature, and this post will attempt to explain why. There are some other more subtle and specific forms of stretching, but we'll leave it there for now. For a look at how differently physios think on this subject, search some physio pages on Instagram; the advice you'll get will differ on almost every page. The inconsistency is startling and evidence of the fact the industry is largely clueless when it come to long-term biomechanical health as theories are thrown-out here and there with real results thin on the ground.
Much of what I have learned about biomechanics has come about recently (in the last few years), but I knew that the efficacy of conventional stretching was questionable many years ago when I finished my sports science degree back in 2001. There was a feeling that it might be somewhat beneficial after exercise, but the evidence was slim to none, and there was already evidence that stretching before exercise reduced power output and performance, and increased the risk of injury.
But from what I know now, the likelihood that stretching has any benefits at all is exceedingly small, outside of a kind of placebo, feel good effect that is mainly psychological. I am sure that in the immediate aftermath of stretching people feel somewhat looser and more relaxed, but the looseness is likely to be harmful in the long run, and the relaxation extremely short-lived.
So why don’t I like stretching and why is it that it has been shown to reduce power output and increase the risk of injury? I’ll shed some light on why this might happen, as well as explain the detrimental long-term effects of stretching.
Isolation, not Integration
Conventional stretching suffers from the same fundamental problem many modern-day gym exercises do, and that is they are isolationist in nature. Just as conventional weight training focuses on the arms, the legs, the chest, the back, etc. Conventional stretching does the same. Each muscle group is stretched in isolation and this facilitates a breakdown in the musculofascial connections that are so essential to efficient movement.
Look at the picture below of one of the body’s functional lines of muscle and fascia (I like to use this line as an example as it is one of the most basic). There should be a balance of tension between in each part of the chain. To function properly all parts of the chain need to work together to optimally load any tension placed upon it. This goes on all over the body at the same time simultaneously, as other myofascial lines integrate with each other in a complex symphony to create efficient movement. The human body works as one whole unit, it is a system of different areas working in unison. When you exercise in isolation, whether by weight training or stretching, you are training yourself to not work in unison. Remember from previous posts that we are highly adaptive, and if we do something often and intensely enough, our body will be primed to adapt to it. Train your muscles in isolation and they'll get good at working in isolation. This might look good in the mirror, but your movement will suffer.
In a nutshell, training in an isolating manner means that tension is held in areas it shouldn’t be, which can overload smaller muscle groups or even focus the tension on small parts of muscle groups, and the synchronized effect of all the muscles working in unison cannot be achieved, meaning you aren't able to produce as much force or power and are generally less efficient.
There are other ways stretching is not such a good idea.
Although I compared weight training to stretching because of the fact they have isolation in common, weight training does have a little more going for it in that it causes a thickening of muscle and connective tissue. This leads to adaptive muscle shortening, but it also leads to bone growth and does have some benefits to preventing injury and conditions such as osteoporosis. Weight training can thicken/strengthen connective tissue like ligaments and tendons also. Stretching doesn’t have nearly the same amount of positive effects, and indeed may overly lengthen and weaken tissues like tendons and ligaments.
It is one of the great myths of exercise that flexibility is a good thing. It is neither good or bad in and of itself. It is elasticity that is important and elasticity in the human body can only be achieved by better integration of the muscle and fascial connections. As people age, they lose elasticity because as their posture changes their movement suffers. This switches-off functional chains of muscle and fascia, causing isolated, heavy-looking movements, which are not only less efficient and less able to produce force, they are also damaging on the joints, as the forces involved in the movements aren't absorbed evenly throughout the body's myofascial network, but localised in certain areas such as joints, tendons and ligaments, and smaller muscle groups. Conventional stretching encourages this localised, uneven distribution of forces
Don't Stretch. Learn to Load Properly Through Exercise
If you can learn good postural control, you can begin to take yourself through natural ranges of motion that facilitate a kind of stretching feeling during the exercise itself. Instead of calling it a stretch, however, I will call it loading or priming. Holding good posture while in movement will enable you to go through a range of motion that optimally loads the muscle and fascia in a connected manner. Once you reach this point, you will feel it as a stretching feeling, but with the ability to harness the elastic potential energy that muscle and fascia can hold. Once this point is reached the muscle contracts along with this elastic stored energy. As a result you get much more efficient movement that wastes less energy, much more connected movement that creates more force, and safer movement because of the optimal distribution of forces throughout the myofascial network.
When I train, every exercise I do is designed to practice this function; how to form as best a connection I can through posture and movement to facilitate this priming of muscle and fascial tissue. Correct activation of muscle tissue in contraction will facilitate optimal lengthening of opposing muscle tissue. This is the only stretching you'll ever need.
Below is an example of me practicing this without weights, using mere posture and alignment in movement to create loading (I usually use this as a warm-up routine). I guess you could call this a stretching routine, but as you can see it is not what most people think about when you talk of stretching. And unless you have good control of your posture throughout the movements, you won't even feel a stretch.
In the following video I use an example from one of my favourite sources for movement corrective exercise, Functional Patterns. The example in this video is of a highly trained athlete - in this case a wrestler, who does some wrestling-specific movements - and represents the pinnacle of efficiency in human movement using high resistance. The more resistance you use, the better your posture and general alignment in movement have to be.
This is a wonderful example of something near the ideal, and to move like this requires a lot of practice and attention to detail, and possibly excellent genes as well. Many of us will never get anywhere near this stage, but striving for it can only bring about marked improvements in biomechanical health and health more generally too. Note that even though Kyle Dake is a bit of a freak, he still has his imbalances, see if you can spot them.
Basically, you need to be able to use your own body, using the correct length/tension relationships between all muscles in a functional chain of muscles to create the stretch, load, or priming effect. If you use an external force, like hanging on a bar, gravity in touching your toes, or a trainer to stretch you, you are not getting the feedback you need for successful integration of muscles and fascia in movement. This means you will be more likely to go past a safe range of motion in one particular area without any support from muscles elsewhere. You will also create the same effect by passively stretching one area without the integration of the rest of the body.
The correct contraction of muscle groups and movement integration creates an optimal lengthening of opposing muscle groups. If you move well, and go through the correct ranges of motion, you'll stretch/load/prime your muscles just fine without any need for conventional stretching routines. Indeed, conventional stretching will teach you to move improperly and not contract opposing muscle groups properly, which will create a dysfunctional, uneven stretch in the area you intend to stretch, which then places too much lengthening in areas like ligaments, weakening them and making you more prone to injury.
This is a topic so hard to get across to people unless they have felt the correct way to prime/lengthen/load the body in movement, so I apologise if I repeat myself slightly in this article. Once you can feel it, you will understand the difference between flexibility and elasticity, and the incredible difference this makes to how you move and feel.
Have you noticed that in some people it doesn't matter how much stretching you do, the area you stretch always feels tight? Why is that?
I had this issue when I played a lot of squash. I'd stretch my inner thigh a lot, but it stayed ridiculously tight and never improved. The reason? Clues can be found in the myofascial line pictured. If these connections exist, what good is stretching only my inner thighs when my abs and chest are tight? Almost as soon as I have finished stretching my inner thigh, the tension and stiffness held further up the chain is going put much of the tension right back on it. And this is the best case scenario because it still hints at a functional connection between these areas.
If I actually manage to be so dedicated as to get more flexibility in the inner thigh only, you can imagine what effect this will have on the functional chain. Loose inner thigh muscles, tight abs and chest. Do you think they will function well together? What if you try and stretch each area equally in isolation? Wouldn't be better to learn to lengthen and contract these connections all in one go (and it is possible, and is the way they are meant to function)? Something to think about.
I now haven't stretched in a conventional manner for about 6 years, and my range of motion has improved out of sight. Learn to move properly and you do not need to stretch, end of story. Not only that but stretching will guarantee that you will find it very hard to move properly in the first place. So now, I finally have the confidence to say steer clear of it. The problem is that statements like this don't win you many friends and allies, I'm afraid.
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