Is stretching, a waste of time or the key to healing all your pains?
Is that even the question? Instead, maybe we should be asking WHAT we're stretching when we stretch and is it even possible to stretch what we think we are stretching (the muscle)?
It is hands down the most fervently charged topic that I encounter in the fitness/healthcare industry today. We are very emotionally attached to this stretching thing...
In an effort to save us hours of back and forth emails about my spreading the word of the devil, NOW READ THIS and let it sink in...
I AM NOT SAYING STRETCHING IS BAD!!
And for those of you like me that need to read things twice before it sticks... I AM NOT SAYING STRETCHING IS BAD!!
And now that we have that out of the way, I am going to say next that....
Stretching is a waste of time.
As soon some of you read that, your butt cheeks tensed up, didn't they? If that is the case, read the previous two lines before proceeding.
Assuming since you have read this far and are not three paragraphs into an emotionally charged response to this post, you are truly interested in why I tell you that stretching is a waste of time.
Let me start at the beginning... of time. Well, close to it. Around the time our species or precursor to the homo sapiens we know today started walking around, we walked barefoot, sat on the rocks and slept on not-so-soft chunks of earth. And we did it day-in and day-out for weeks, months, years at a time! The interesting part is that our species survived. We not only survived, but we thrived all while, for the most part, sleeping on the ground and sitting on rocks.
Interesting, because I would bet a pretty penny that if we took one of our modern kin and had them sleep on the ground for one night or spend less then an hour sitting on a rock, the pain experiences in their body would be off the charts. This is why we rely on comfortable beds and custom shaped chairs to cradle our now tight and fragile bodies.
So what happened? Why is it that for most people an hour spent sitting in an uncomfortable chair renders them with tightness and pain? Why if they sleep in a strange bed are they crippled the next day with tightness and pain? In a world with custom comfort beds and ergonomically designed chairs, the occurrence of pain and tightness is off the charts.
Is it because we are not stretching enough? That's NOT it. You could stretch once or twice per day, and likely make a difference with the sensations you are having BUT stretching is a waste of time because your stretch is only going to soothe the symptoms of a larger issue.
Lets take a quick peak at muscle and how it works. I'm not going to totally nerd out here on you, I'll just give you an analogy that should help grasp the concept of a muscle contraction.
Grab a rubber band if you have one, an exercise band or anything that is elastic in property. Now grab both ends and pull away from each other... ooohhhh... stretchy right? Now let go! The stretchy thing goes back into its original state or length. That is not how muscles work! There is very little stretchy stuff in our muscles. So if our muscles don't work like rubber bands, then how do they work?
Now grab a piece of Velcro if you have one handy. If not, Google it so you can get this visualization. Now pull both ends... hard, harder. Two things could happen, 1. No change in length 2. There was a structural failure and the pieces came undone. That is how your muscles work!
In example one, your nervous system which controls the length of your muscle was able to maintain proper tension through the muscle and hold the contraction, or the tightness. So your brain allowed your body to maintain tightness... Like it is in charge of this super computer we live in. For a second example, the material changes length. System failure via a protective mechanism that the nervous system controls. What happens? The nervous system perceives an immanent threat to the structure of the muscle and un-couples the tissue, in this case the Velcro. There is no structural damage, and the tissue gets longer via this un-coupling and re-coupling.
Now why might the later example, which is what is happening when we stretch or try, be a waste of time?
Because the muscles only function is to shorten. Nope, not stretch, TO SHORTEN! With that being the case, you can keep shutting off the nervous systems communication to the muscle and having it lengthen, not stretch, by putting excessive force throughout the tissue over and over again for the rest of your time on this rock.
For a more time conscious approach, you could increase the muscles ability to contract, get stronger, and via the muscle's ability to create more tension on the entire body will decrease the overall tightness of any one group of muscles. That approach would take you a few hours a week and decrease over time as you got stronger.
Those prehistoric humans had one thing up on current day humans... they actually had to move to survive. There was no drive to the grocery to pick up a fat steak. They had to get off the rock they were sitting on and chase something down! They had to WORK their muscles. And when they were not chasing food they were running from creatures that were trying to make them food! Again working their muscles.
The reason we are tight...
Is not because our body just decides one day to spend extra energy and tighten up our muscles. It is tight because those muscles are doing the work of a bunch of other weak muscles. We are weak in comparison to our precursors which is why we now rely on nice flat beds and special chairs.
The take away... stretching is a waste of time. GET UP, GET STRONG, REPEAT!
Would you like to learn more?? Check out this blog post: Popular Myth about Stretching