For the second article in our App Focus line, it seemed appropriate to really dig into Performance Stretching. Stretching is one of those things that everyone knows how to do, but few people know how to do right. All of the old-school (and largely incorrect) rules for stretching have been making the news lately because more and more, we are learning they do more harm than good. This has led many to believe that all stretching is bad, which is a shame because if it is done properly, stretching does offer a myriad amount of physical, mental, and emotional benefits. There is nothing inherently wrong with static stretching (where you hold a position for 30 seconds), but doing it to warm up before an activity is absolutely the wrong time to do it. The key to getting the most out of stretching is knowing the right types of stretches for the right situations. We've broken all the specifics down in Performance Stretching to make sure you're always doing what's best for your body at the right time. Static stretching has its place, as does dynamic stretching and foam roller stretching, and this article will explain the research behind all the programs laid out in the Performance Stretching app.
Don't let habit be your guide
Most of us learned back in elementary school that we should perform static stretches before we run or play sports to make sure we don't suffer an injury. It turns out that this not only doesn't help, but it can actually increase your chances of injury.
I won't get too complicated, but let me quickly explain how your muscles contract. Your muscles are composed of interlocking actin and myosin fibers which are pulled together to contract your muscle. When the actin and myosin fibers are stretched too far apart before the muscle contracts, they cannot generate as much force. This is why static stretching before an activity can be bad. It can reduce your muscle's ability to contract by pulling the myosin and actin fibers out of their ideal muscle length-tension relationship. This means you will be less coordinated during explosive movements, your muscles will respond slower, and they will not be able to generate as much force for up to 60 minutes afterwards. This not only reduces your strength and performance, but it increases your chance of injury. Your muscles work to protect your joints during movement, and reducing your muscles ability to move increases the risk to the joint.
But static stretching still helps
On the other hand, when the fibers are bunched too close together, the muscle's ability to contract is also reduced. This is why routine static stretching can actually improve the health of your muscles. One study found that sedentary participants experienced significant gains not only in flexibility, but in strength, muscular endurance, and jumping ability after performing static stretches 40 minutes a day, 3 days per week. The muscle length-tension relationship works on a bell curve. If the fibers are too close or too far apart, then the muscle's performance is reduced. A routine stretching program can help keep the fibers at an ideal length.
Other benefits of static stretching
Aside from the improvements to flexibility and muscular performance, static stretching has been shown to provide additional benefits:
- Helps improve blood circulation. Increased blood flow means more nutrients are being delivered to muscles and more waste products are being removed. This reduces your recovery time and keeps you progressing.
- Helps improve natural range of motion. Range of motion tends to be reduced due to age or injury. Improving range of motion helps increase balance and coordination which significantly reduces the risk of falls and makes it easier to perform all the activities of daily living.
- Helps reduce stress. The mind/body connection works both ways. When we feel stress it causes tension in our muscles. Relaxing these tense muscles can ease mental tension as well. It's why we find massages so enjoyable.
- Helps improve the production of synovial fluid. This is the fluid that reduces friction and provides cushion within the joints. Reduced levels of synovial fluid as we age not only leads to pain but the increased friction can quickly lead to significant damage to the joint.
30 seconds is all you need
A question I get routinely about the Performance Stretching app is "How do I increase the hold times past 30 seconds?" The answer is that we don't let you, and for good reason. Research has shown that stretching for longer than 30 seconds has no additional benefits over stretching for 30 seconds. In fact, all the research examining the most harmful affects of static stretching shows that this typically occurs when stretches are held for longer than 30 seconds. Why take extra time to do something that's actually worse for you when 30 seconds seems to be the magic number?
So static stretching has its place, but its bad to do before an activity. If that's the case then you're probably asking yourself, "When should I do static stretching and how should I warm up before an activity?"
When it comes to working stretching into your complete fitness routine, it is best to not work a "cold muscle." This means it's best to place your static stretches at the end of your workout when your blood is already flowing and your muscles are warm. However, if you aren't working out at all, then anytime is a great time. Since static stretching has been shown to have similar benefits to strength training for inactive people, simply work stretching into your schedule whenever you can. Since it's not nearly as intense as other forms of exercise, stretching can be just as great a way to start your day as it is to wind down at the end of your day.
Wait, these are stretches?
The best way to warm up before going for a run or playing a sport is with a dynamic stretching routine. Many people also know how to do dynamic stretches, they just never realized things like jogging in place, jumping jacks, and lunges count as stretches. Dynamic stretches take the muscles through their full range of motion like a static stretch, but they do it through repetitions rather than by holding it at the end of the motion. This movement fires up the brain and nervous system and gets the body ready to move in a more coordinated fashion. Increasing blood flow, warming up the body, and properly preparing your muscles and nervous system to work together is what helps prevent injury. This coordinated movement and increased blood flow has also been shown to improve performance. Injury prevention is a nice side-effect of a proper warm up, but the real point is to optimize your movement. A proper warm up with active stretching means you'll hop into your activity ready to go instead of slowly amping up to full speed as you go.
More than one way to fix a muscle
Whether you're an athlete or a couch potato, we all have little nagging pains we would love to get rid of. These pains are the results of imbalances or knots in your muscles that can actually lead to more serious injuries over time. Performance Stretching includes foam roller stretching and a lower back rehab program to help you work out these imbalances, knots, and scar tissue.
Foam roller stretching is based on the principles of Myofascial Release. Fascia is the soft tissue that connects the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Inactivity, overuse, infectious agents, and injury can cause the fascia and underlying muscle tissue to bind together into what is called an adhesion. Most people refer to these adhesions as knots because you can actually feel many of them beneath your skin. These painful points restrict blood flow and ultimately reduce your flexibility and range of motion.
Foam roller stretching is like giving yourself a deep tissue massage to break up these adhesions in order to restore any lost range of motion and increase the blood flow, flexibility, and health of the muscle. It gets your muscles working once again how they should, so they can perform at their best.
Other benefits of foam roller stretching
Pain reduction and an increase to your flexibility and range of motion are big benefits of foam roller stretching, but it can also provide additional benefits:
- Muscle Growth. Foam roller stretching has also been shown to be an excellent tool for muscle growth. These binding adhesions can not only limit the motion of the muscle, but also the room it has to grow. Breaking up these adhesions with foam roller stretching once again increases the blood flow to the muscles which provides the nutrients it needs for growth, but it also give the muscle a little "breathing room" to actually expand.
- Vascular Health. Researchers discovered that foam roller stretching reduces arterial stiffness and improves arterial function in sedentary adults. They recommended foam roller stretching as a useful tool for improving cardiovascular health.
- Lessen Post-Workout Soreness. Foam roller stretching after an intense workout has been shown to reduce delayed onset post-exercise soreness. Lessening the pain of a workout will help you recover more quickly so you can train again.
There is an excellent article summarizing all the latest research on foam roller training here if you would like to read more.
My back has never felt better
One of the biggest side effects of our modern world seems to be lower back pain. People don't realize that sitting actually puts more strain on your lower back than standing or walking does. Not only that, but all the inactivity of modern living weakens the muscles that provide additional support for your spine. This one-two punch leaves your lower back susceptible to chronic pain and injury. That is why we specifically included a lower back rehab program in Performance Stretching. Lower back pain is a plague of the modern era, but it's one that is so easily fixed. This simple combination of stretching and strength training moves will help correct your posture and build strength around your core to relieve the strain placed on your spine. It only takes minutes a day to undo the damage we do to ourselves all day long. Most back pain can be fixed without surgical correction, so it is in your best interest to reverse your pain before it turns into something more serious.
We call it Performance Stretching for a reason
Performance Stretching has all the tools you need to reduce pain and rehab nagging injuries as you improve your flexibility, range or motion, and muscular performance. The programs are simply labeled to let you know if you should do them before or after a workout and what their focus is. It only takes minutes a day to drastically improve your muscular health and improve your athletic performance. Whether you're an athlete or a couch potato, everyone can benefit from adding some type of stretch program into their routine.