I recently worked with a young high school basketball player presenting with generalized low back pain. He struggled to twist or bend over at the waist without significant pain. After targeting his significantly tight hamstrings, QL, erector spinae, and hip rotators for just over an hour, he had regained full range of motion - touching his toes, twisting without pain.
Following the session, I asked him what his stretching routine looked like when he worked out or played basketball. He kind of laughed and said the team does some generalized stretching before practice but they didn't take it too seriously. I get it. I remember how we stretched for five minutes before early March lacrosse practice in the parking lot of my upstate New York high school. We had to practice on the parking lot because the grass was still covered with snow. Our stretching routine was less than minimal, at best. The resultant shin splints, hamstring pulls, and IT band pain made my bench-sitting career that much more miserable.
But what about stretching. Could it have prevented our basketball player's elasticity? Might it have made my time warming the bench that much more enjoyable? My vote is yes, but when, for how long, and how intense are the real questions here. Recent research has given some great insights into answering these questions, as well as the outcomes of those practicing good stretching habits.
What Happens When We Stretch?
When we stretch, we simply move the targeted muscle against its contracting motion. In other words, to stretch our plantar flexors (gastrocs and soleus) we put the foot into dorsi flexion. This action truly elongates the targeted muscle fiber. Although it may be a little gross, think of a piece of uncooked steak (cow muscle) and pull it at both ends. Additional stretching places force on the surrounding connective tissue - ligaments, tendons, cartilage, fat. As the tension increases, the collagen fibers in the connective tissue align themselves along the same line of force as the tension. So when you stretch, the muscle fiber is pulled out to its full length and then the connective tissue takes up the remaining slack. When this occurs, it helps to realign any disorganized fibers in the direction of the tension. which helps to rehabilitate scarred tissue back to health.
Bones Don't Lie, Muscles Always Win, Nerves Rule
When our muscles are more elastic, we have better range of motion without pain because our muscles are responsible for their intended action. Think of a person with upper-crossed syndrome. She sits at a computer all day - the shoulders slumped forward (bones don't lie). The shoulders appear slumped because the pec muscles have actually shortened and adapted to the "slumped" position (muscles always win). If the pec muscles are tight, your head is probably going to try to slump forward, which in turn puts added responsibility on the traps and sub-occipital muscles (this is the "righting" reflex - our body naturally puts us in a position that keeps our eyes horizontal to the ground to aid in our general perception), Those overworked sub-occipital muscles are often referred to as the headache muscles (nerves rule). We now have a situation where at least two separate muscle groups are being called upon to do more than they're naturally built to do.
It basically comes down to this: stretching puts our body closer to its natural position which in turn allows our muscles to be responsible for their intended action.
When to Stretch
It used to be that we would only stretch before a run or workout. This is how I grew up. This was and is wrong.
My instructor told me to think of muscle as if it were a piece of taffy. When it's cold it's almost brittle, tough to bend or manipulate. But if we warmed it up a bit, it would become pliable and workable. It's just tough to stretch a cold muscle, and trying to do so could result in ripping another muscle in a completely different part of your body.
I believe warming the muscles first through jumping jacks, gentle twist and turns, and small shoulder circles followed by dynamic stretching before a workout. This can be done in as little as three to five minutes.
Static stretching is best post-workout when the muscles are warm, pliable, and stretchable.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends holding each stretch for 30 seconds. Research has shown that anything less than 20 seconds does not lengthen the muscle fiber and that anything more than 30 could overstretch and injure the muscle.
Which Muscles to Stretch
It depends on what kind of workout you've done. If you find that you are suffering through shin splints after you run, concentrate on a solid 30 second static tibialis anterior stretch. Listen to your body and do what feels good. For me I always incorporate a figure 4 floor series of stretches for my hamstrings and hips, followed by a simple yoga salutation hitting the low back, calves, and quads. Also, the more I stretch my adductors, the better I feel the next day.
Right now, I can't say enough about incorporating a yoga routine a few times a week into your workout schedule. It builds strength, balance, and endurance all while giving your body the stretch it needs. Wouldn't it be great to see the high school basketball team zipping through a vinyasa after practice? I'll run it by the coach.