Oct. 3rd, 2010

yeloson: (Default)
I figured I should also cover the second most common thing full of misinformation: stretching.

How Adhesions Form

Every night, while you sleep, your body goes into general repair mode. There's a certain amount of cells that are dead and pulled out, and your body does a general repair cycle all around. This generalized thing includes laying down connective tissue - everywhere and without necessarily direction.

When you wake up, you've got this thin layer of connective tissue that's been placed throughout your body. You get up, you yawn, you stretch and you obliterate a good amount of that connective tissue. You go make breakfast or rush for a shower, etc. - all those movements take out some more of that tissue.

The stuff that's left over? It gets built up the next night, and the next night, etc.

Presumably, since you're not moving in a way to tear it back down, it's assumed you don't actually need that range of motion, and instead, you need stabilization, which is exactly what that connective tissue will give you, given enough time to build up.

It'll be strong, but it'll reduce your range of motion. (This also happens with injuries, but more on that later).

Stretching...basically

The biggest misconception is that greater range of motion is always a good thing.

Stretch to the range of motion you expect you'll need to use for your activities- not more than that.

The reality is that you're always doing a tradeoff between how much range of motion and the amount of work it takes to make your body functional AND safe at that range, otherwise, you open yourself up for injuries.

When you stretch, you're not just breaking up that adhesive tissue, you're not just stretching the muscles and corresponding tissues (tendons, fascia, etc.), you're also resetting the muscles to expect to be at that range and not automatically lock up to stabilize things.

You're turning off safeties to protect your joints.

Now, if you're also training your muscles to be strong at that extended range, and you're training your nervous system to coordinate firing all your stabilizers to handle that, great.

But you can see, that's a lot more work than just "stretching it".

You will also be able to identify qualified instructors or resources like books or websites based on if they give you those two other factors of how to strengthen and develop stabilizers.

When you do stretch, be gentle and don't bounce. Be willing to go partway, like 75-80% and then come back to it and see if you can get 90% and then come back to it later for a full stretch. Make sure you do some warm up for the movement you plan on doing so you didn't just relax the muscles without active stimulation.

Strength & Stabilizers

There's a lot of folks who can stretch themselves into extreme ranges... but can't get themselves out of it without using different muscles. While this is fine when you're stretching in a gym or at home, if you take a fall and find yourself in the same position, that lack of muscle strength means the shock will probably hit in a bad way.

So it's really important to have strength throughout the full range of motion you have.

Second, you also have to make your muscles "smart" - to be able to coordinate to work when something like that happens. This is where stabilizers come in. The trick to stabilizers is that it's a coordination between your brain and your muscles- you're training yourself to fire off many different muscles, in order to stabilize your joint and body.

This is why you might have someone who is very strong, can leg press their whole body weight with each leg... but has trouble standing on one leg- the issue isn't strength, it's firing different muscles in time to keep balance.

If you are going to do some stretching to increase your range of motion, be sure to follow it with some strength training and some stabilizer work..

Actually Stretching

There's also another issue that happens when we talk about stretching. Let's say you're doing the classic "touch your toes" kind of stretch. Typically this is supposed to be used to stretch the hamstrings.

Problem is, a lot of people end up stretching their lower back muscles and not their hamstrings in the process.

The body will take the route of least resistance- if your back muscles have more give, it'll do that. Not only will you have not stretched the hamstrings, enough of it, and you might have weakened the support from your spinal ligaments. (One of my teachers works with a circus school - it's pretty much accepted among contortionists that they will just have to suffer back pain from their work...)

When you're doing any actual stretching work, you should have a qualified person or information resource that can help you identify what you should be feeling and more importantly - what you SHOULDN'T be feeling, so you don't "cheat" the stretch or take yourself into places that might stress the joints.

Injuries and Stretching

The short bit on injuries basically boils down to three things:

1) Listen to your doctor and physical therapist- they're going to tell you what NOT to do to make it worse or re-injure, and that's the most important thing.
2) As soon as you're ok'd for movement, even if it's 1 centimeter, do it in order to help break up adhesions a bit and make it easier for you later on. Don't use weight until your PT ok's it.
3) Be very gentle with yourself. A ton of re-injuries happen in 3 weeks to 6 months after an injury. Go with less weight and less force and don't be surprised if progress is measured in weeks or months.

When you get injured, your body lays down that connective tissue everywhere - it's often called "scar tissue".

Movement breaks up the fibers that restrict movement and so it's useful to do that as soon as possible after inflammation has dropped and bruising is done- BUT LISTEN TO YOUR DOCTOR- if you completely separate your tendon- rest assured that scar tissue isn't going to be the big problem on your plate.

After an injury, for the rest of your life, you're going to have to be more careful about stretching and making sure to strengthen and stabilize the area- injuries don't really "heal", it's more your body slaps down enough scar tissue around it and fixes some muscle and calls it good. You've got permanent structural changes from your body making-do with what it could.

Focus on getting day-to-day range of motion and strength more than anything else. Then go slow and definitely be careful if you need to go beyond that.

Why is there so much general info that stretching is always good?

One of the key problems to fitness information in the US at least, if not elsewhere, is that most of it is promoted by "health missionaries" - the weight training folks like to say strength is everything, the cardio folks focus only on cardio... naturally there's a group who believes stretching cures all ills.

All of this also includes over-simplifications of each of those. Not knowing when NOT to do something is how people get hurt.

This kind of thinking is why we're getting a lot of studies which are mixed on a lot of these subjects- of course "sometimes it helps" "sometimes it hurts" is the response if you're randomly popping medicine out of a doctor's bag.

It's not as simple as "just stretching" - is the stretch appropriate to the activity? Is the range of motion appropriate? Are the correct muscles being stretched? Do the muscles have strength through the motion? Is the rest of the warm up appropriate? Is there a history of injury?

There's a lot of specifics that go into it, and you need to think about all of it to get the most out of stretching.

At least, if you get nothing else: Stretch only to the range of motion you expect to use in your activity, and make sure you have strength throughout that full range.

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yeloson

November 2012

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