Stretching: As important as everyone says, or something you can ignore?
Everyone emphasizes the importance of stretching – but how much does it really impact your health and fitness?
Just about every personal trainer and armchair fitness expert will tell you that it’s important to stretch before and after exercise to prevent pain and injury, as well as increase your recovery time.
However, is stretching really that important in the scheme of things? There are multiple other factors that can influence your level of pain and risk of injury, such as exercise type, time between sets and sessions, and even diet.
The science regarding stretching has gone backwards and forwards over the years. In fact, the debate is still not fully settled as to whether muscle strength or muscle length is the most important when it comes to avoiding tears and related injuries.
Top Reasons Why Stretching is Important
The only thing worse than the day after an extremely strenuous workout is the second day after, when stiffness and pain really sets in. Stretching is an effective way of reducing post-exercise aches and pains. Loose, stretched muscles are less likely to seize up and become tight, causing pain every time you try to move.
Stiffness and Range of Motion
Stretching is an effective way of reducing muscle stiffness that may set in after exercise. In addition, it’s a great way of improving your overall range of motion, which can stave off future injury and may also reduce the degradation of your joints over time.
A good, long stretch can really help alleviate the stress that builds up during our daily lives. Rather than letting the pressures that face you at work, home and in-between get to you, stretch it out. Take some time to relax and loosen up – it actually works. Stretching is not only important for your physical health, but for your mental wellbeing as well.
Reduce the Risk of Injury
While the science isn’t 100% conclusive, most people will tell you anecdotally that stretching certainly helps avoid injury while working out. The more flexible your muscles are, the less likely they are to be damaged during extensive movements. Stretching will also improve your joints’ abilities to withstand high pressure and stresses, further protecting your body from injury.
Stretching encourages your muscles to relax and release built-up muscular tension. Many of us tense up our muscles over time, and often end up walking around with very tense bodies – this is often expressed in our shoulders or lower back.
Tense muscles often have reduced blood and oxygen flow through them, which can affect the delivery of nutrients essential for muscle growth and repair.
In the modern world, many of us are either working at a computer or each day or participating in some kind of labour that places stress on our spine and lower back. Stretching will help your lower back, shoulders and chest and reduce tightness, allowing you to push those shoulders back and stand upright.
Prepares the Body
Stretching is a great way of preparing the body for the stresses that exercise places upon it. By loosening the muscles up and expanding their range of movement prior to exercise, they’ll be able to more capably resist the impact of exercise. When you have limited time to exercise, stretching can really help you maximise your gains.
Flexible joints require less energy to move in a far wider range of motions, so your overall flexibility can actually influence your levels of performance while working out or playing sports.
Regular stretching will make you more energy efficient, and allow you to push that little bit further when it matters.
Decreases Back Pain
Back pain can easily prevent you from working out and enjoying day to day life. Stretching out your hamstrings, hip flexors, pelvic muscles and even your chest and shoulders can relieve stress on your lower back and spine.
Good circulation leads to good health. When you stretch, you increase the level of blood supply to the stretched muscles and other parts of the body, promoting more efficient circulation. Good circulation improves oxygen flow, improving your performance levels, and also delivers essential nutrients throughout the body.
The Argument against Stretching
There is a growing school of thought that argues that stretching isn’t particularly important when it comes to preventing soreness and injury.
We all get sore if we haven’t worked out for a while, especially if we push ourselves harder than a sedentary person probably should. The soreness can really set in after two days, and is a solid reminder that we aren’t getting the exercise we should be.
Past research has indicated that this muscular soreness results from the muscles spasming and tightening up, reducing overall blood flow through the muscles and thus resulting in pain. By stretching the muscles, you allow blood to circulate throughout them and reduce the soreness.
However, recent research has indicated that muscle soreness may be due to the elongation of sarcomeres, which are the parts of the muscle that allow it to contract. The filaments within sarcomeres slide past each other when the muscle contracts, and it’s still not clear whether stretching has any impact on their ability to slide smoothly, and thus reduce soreness.
Most major studies revolving around stretching and soreness show a very limited correlation between the two. In other words, stretching may not actually reduce muscle soreness.
Injury Rate and Recovery
Prevailing opinions believe that stretching reduces the chance of a muscle over-extending or suddenly pulling when you use it. Most research initiatives into this phenomenon, however, have shown basically no correlation between stretching and the rate of muscle injury or prevention.
It turns out the body is pretty good at avoiding injury, and stretching won’t save you if you’re doing something outside your capabilities.
Is Stretching Really Important?
All of the research points towards one conclusion: stretching probably isn’t really that important for the average person. It doesn’t have a significant impact on injury prevention, and may not even help reduce muscle soreness.
However, if you want to improve overall circulation, mobility and performance levels, then stretching might be a good idea. It all comes down to your level and style of activity. If stretching is a part of your current exercise routine, keep it up. If you don’t, you’re probably not missing out on a critical aspect of your workout.
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