By John Andersen
Did you know that stretching is “for Bozos”? Well, at least according to Dr. Steve Gangemi (aka “The Sock Doc”), an outspoken chiropractor who specializes in sports medicine with a holistic approach, who believes that stretching for the most part is worthless and a waste of time.
As you’ll read in this column, I don’t completely agree with him. However the Sock Doc does bring up some very good questions about an activity that most people would agree is “a good idea,” perhaps without really getting into why.
We were taught to stretch in gym class, in sports, by our running friends. But really what are we doing when we stretch? Is it important? Am I messing up if I don’t do it?
Stretching: What is it?
When we stretch, we are stretching and ever so slightly tearing our muscle fibers and connective tissues of the stretched muscle-tendon unit, hoping that it will heal slightly longer, adding more length and range of motion to the particular joint/muscle-tendon unit. When you see someone doing the classic calf stretch, they are trying to lengthen the calf muscle/Achilles tendon unit to give more range of motion to the ankle joint.
Does it work?
Yes and no. According to Jay Dicharry, PT, author of Anatomy for Runners who used to direct the UVA SPEED clinic, stretching does work, but you need to stretch for several minutes, several times a day, for 12 weeks (!) in order to make any lasting change in the length of a typical muscle-tendon unit. Whoa. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of a slacker and not sure I would be able to commit to that schedule.
Also, some tissues like your knee’s iliotibial band or the Achilles tendon itself are so thick and strong, there is just no way you are going to lengthen them with stretching alone.
Further, some stretches just don’t work well because you can’t really apply good leverage to the entire muscle-tendon unit, like the quad stretch you always see people doing. It’s pretty difficult to really stretch out the entire muscle group. And do I even need more length in my quads? However in some stretches, like the calf and hip flexor stretches, you can really get a lot of leverage into the stretch and with time and consistency, you can really make some important lasting changes.
Why do we do it??
Okay, this is the meat of the argument: Why do we stretch? Were people stretching 10,000 years ago? Besides an occasional yawn and two-second stretch, why don’t we see animals stretching regularly?
We probably have developed a culture of random stretching because we often feel tight. These days we humans sit a lot. A LOT. This is a column for another day, but sitting really does mess with our postural muscles, weakens our core strength, and really tightens up our hip flexors. These are all bad things for exercising and stressing the mechanics of our body. Also, we have a big separation of our sedentary life and our active life. We sit and work, sleep, and then get up early and squeeze in an hour of high intensity exercise. We feel tight.
But is our stretching really targeting where we are tight? And do we know if we need more range of motion for the particular activity we are doing? Have I broken down your previous conceptions of stretching yet?
What if I told you that massaging and rolling out your muscles is actually much more effective at giving you back some length and suppleness to your muscles (i.e. using a foam roller, stick roller, or getting a targeted massage).
Honest discussions about stretching will bring up more questions than answers. But allow me to give an athlete’s simple guide to stretching. Through research, current information, and personal experience, I really believe the following are points that most people in the know would agree with regarding stretching:
Go see a physical therapist for an evaluation and a tune up! Let’s say your 40, you’ve had two kids and you’re ready to get back into shape. Your body is probably not the way it was when you were 20! So why not find out some very specific ways that things have changed and where you could use help. I went to a PT years ago because I just knew my running was way off, but I couldn’t figure it out by myself. Turns out my hip flexors were atrociously tight. Now I work on that every day. I can’t tell you what a difference it has made, and how much trouble addressing that has saved me! Many PT offices have very reasonable rates for “screenings” to help you see where you are weak, and where you are tight.
Stretch only what you need to stretch. Don’t waste your time. Stretching should be very focused; it should be you working specifically on getting additional range of motion in joints that you know limit you from performing the exercise you want to perform. My hamstrings are also tight, but my PT told me I have plenty of range of motion for running, so I don’t worry about them.
90 percent of us need to stretch our hip flexors. These are the muscles that run across the front of your hip and serve to raise your thigh upwards when you move/walk/run. When we sit, these are in a very shortened position. When our hip flexors are tight, they act as a tether and pull our pelvis forward and down, out of alignment. This is compensated for in our lower back, it weakens our core stability, and it changes our lower leg mechanics. So stretch your hip flexors, every day. Search online for good stretches for this.
Don’t stretch before exercise! Don’t stretch and tear your poor cold, tight muscles before you even use them. This makes no sense. Warm up first! Not enough people warm up. It takes your body about 10 minutes to truly warm up, so no matter who you are, make sure the first 10 minutes of your exercise is really, really easy. Stretch after exercising, when your muscles and tendons are warmed and more likely to stretch without damage.
Get a foam roller +/- massage stick and learn how to use them! If you’ve got tight calves, you’re missing out big time if all you are doing is stretching them. Massage those babies. Roll them out! It’s amazing the difference it makes. Massaging out “trigger points” is a very effective way of lengthening muscles, and many tendon issues are due to tight muscles upstream. I also strongly recommend an occasional visit to a massage therapist.
As we get back to fitness, avoiding injury and increasing our abilities and performance can be elusive goals. Being informed as to why we do what we do is just as important as the exercise itself. With some help and practice, you can be an expert mechanic of your body!