Stretching 101

In General by Adam Friedman

Hi, Adam here, if you Include just 15-20 minutes of stretching each day you can create a dramatic improvement in how you look, feel, and perform everyday. However, making the time to stretch has generally fallen low on the priority list in our every day lives, even for many fitness enthusiasts. However, if you have been consistent with stretching, you probably have grown to realize and greatly appreciate all of the benefit it has brought to your body and mind.

For some stretching has become an integral part of their lifestyle because they use it as a vehicle to relax, de-stress, and enter a state of calm in this sometimes otherwise hectic world. Others have initially committed themselves to stretching because of how it benefits their performance in their activity, such as in yoga, gymnastics, dance, and martial arts. Eventually the value of stretching to improve the mind and body becomes the ultimate motivation to being consistent.

Unfortunately there is also the large group of people that had been reluctant in their past to stretch, but is now forced to make a choice about either stretching religiously or risk being in chronic pain stemming from a variety of reasons. It is this group that I would like to decrease in population by preempting their chronic pain starting with a stretching education.

The first objective of stretching should always be to create balance in our musculoskeletal system, or in other terms, maintain proper posture. Therefore, creating the flexibility for our muscles to be at their optimal length promotes correct alignment for the skeletal structure. This combination greatly enhances the body’s ability to generate the most force with the least energy-cost to the body, and the lowest risk for injury.

Having correct body alignment is the foundation to being flexible, stable, and strong. To further understand this concept, having a little understanding of the human anatomy and physiology, and the forces acting upon it is pertinent.

Each of our skeletal muscles is attached by a connective tissue called a tendon. In addition, another connective tissue called fascia wraps and intertwines through the entire body like a giant continuous web, and helps our muscles to work together in groups to generate force and create motion.

In each muscle and tendon, there is what is considered an optimal muscle-tendon length ratio in which it can act upon a bone, and interact with other muscles in the most efficient way. This means that our muscles are their strongest when they are at a specific length, and allowing for an ideal range of range of motion in the joints.

Otherwise if a muscle is either shorter or longer than this ideal length, it’s own contractile mechanisms are compromised, resulting in a lower capability to produce muscular force in which to act upon an object or reduce external forces brought upon our body. If we were to properly stretch a shortened muscle to it’s optimal length, it will instantly have more force producing capability to make us stronger, and explosive when we need to be.

In connection, since our muscles can move bones, those muscles that are too long or too short can alter our structural alignment. In effect, this creates further imbalances in posture, and an added biomechanical disadvantage in applying force and withstanding external forces.

Applying forces created from our muscles is derived from their cellular fiber contractions. The repetitive nature of these contractions, whether voluntary or involuntary, is the primary root of having short muscles that get to be stretched. If a muscle remains short from these contractions after activity or inactivity, it leaves its antagonist counterpart in a lengthened state. This results in a weakened state in both.

How our body responds to external forces also plays a huge role in the flexibility and function of the muscles and fascia. The most impactful external forces that our body works to withstand on a daily basis are gravity, 24/7, and ground reaction forces every time we take a step. Mechanically the body is designed to disperse the impact of these external forces in the least stressful way on the body.

During both activity and inactivity, our bones should bear the brunt of these forces. Thereafter the forces should land in our connective tissue, and then finally in the muscles. During activity, the intelligence of the body’s design uses those external forces collectively to generate the energy to create free flowing movement, like when we are walking, or jumping.

However, if our body is out of alignment and our range of motion is restricted, it can alter the ideal sequencing. Instead of being dispersed properly, the forces can get absorbed to a greater extent in muscles. This causes the muscles to become tight, and over stimulated in the process of withstanding the excess of forces.

As a result of that repetitive stress over time, an unhealthy tissue is created from ischemia (an inadequate blood supply), and misaligned muscular-fiber formation. Generally, unhealthy tissue can be characterized by a rigidity, and hypersensitivity to the touch and/or pressure. Healthy muscle tissue is meant to be soft, pliable, and relaxed to the touch and/or pressure.

The same forces that impact the muscle also impacts the fascia, which can often be found as the source of those painful touch centers on our body from the stress related overstimulation, and subsequent inadequate blood flow.

In a domino affect, when a shortened muscle and/or tight fascia pulls a bone out of alignment that has other muscles attached to it, it alters the muscle-tendon length ratio the other muscles in that proximal group, and making them longer and weaker. Compensation ensues followed by eventual breakdown and higher risk for injury.

For example, our bodies can reasonably compensate for one range of motion restriction in an aspect of walking, but two or more can easily cause energy consumption to triple. (David Winter, Biomechanics and Motor Control of Human Movement)

The body is a survival organism and finds a way to work just fine at suboptimal levels. It can operate off of a small percentage of our muscle fibers, and it most often does. This gets many people through life, but then there is only little left to be had in quality of life with aging because of the accumulative effects.

The great news is that with proper stretching, shortened muscles and tight fascia can be averted, and there can be a brighter outlook on our present and future possibilities.

You may find that after properly stretching certain muscles in your leg that it feels lighter. It’s not because stretching created less weight to your leg, but because more muscle fibers were put in a better position to be engaged in the action of lifting your leg, and making it feel significantly lighter.

In my upcoming series of articles, I will explain some very effective ways to properly stretch, and give you the ammunition to improve your flexibility and your fitness for life.