The Truth About Stretching
What really happens to your body when you stretch.
The stretching of a muscle begins in the muscle sarcomere where, the area of overlap in the muscle fibres is decreased as a muscle is lengthened. When a muscle is at its maximum resting length the fibres are extended and additional stretching places tension on surrounding connective tissue. As the tension and length increases the muscle fibres are pulled into full length fibre by fibre. When this happens, it aligns any disorganised connective tissue in the direction of tension allowing for further lengthening of the muscle. In this article, we will expose the truth about stretching.
THE VIDEO: What really happens to your body when you stretch
The nerve endings that relay all the information about the muscle skeletal system are called proprioceptors. They are responsible for feedback of all movement and awareness of the body. When stretching, the discomfort that you might feel in the muscle is a signal sent from the muscle spindle, a type of proprioceptor, to tell your brain that the muscle is vulnerable at this length.
When a muscle lengthens so does its nerve endings. This records the change in length and how fast it then sends the feedback to the spine. This triggers the stretch reflex which, attempts to contract the muscle at the same rate at which it is lengthened. The faster the stretch, the faster the contraction. Plyometric training is performed based on this mechanism. This function of the muscle nerve endings helps to maintain the structure of the muscle and protect it from injury. If the mechanism was not in place, we would tear our muscles every time we reached full extension.
The lengthening reaction
One of the reasons for holding a stretch for a prolonged period is that as you hold the muscle in a stretched position, the nerve endings become accustomed to the new length and reduces its signalling. Gradually, you can train your stretch receptors to allow greater lengthening of the muscles. When there is gradual tension placed upon the muscle, the stretch reflex is inhibited which, triggers the lengthening reaction allowing the muscle to lengthen and relax. It is much easier to stretch a relaxed muscle rather than a muscle that is trying to contract.
This is one of the most common and effective ways to lengthen a muscle. Static stretching involves stretching a muscle to its end range and holding the stretch in a static position. Here the muscle fibres are lengthened to their full capacity and connective tissue aligned to allow for a longer length. When the stretch is held for a period, more and more fibres are lengthened to increase the range of the muscle whilst the muscle nerve becomes accustomed to the length and reduces its signalling. Static stretching is recommended to be performed away from competition and strength training because of the increase in muscle damage and decrease in proprioception that is associated with it. An example would be holding a seated toe reach for 30 seconds to stretch the hamstrings.
Dynamic stretching is common before training and competition because it allows for a large range of movement within a joint without any associated diminishing effects. The muscle uses the stretch reflex mechanism to protect the fibres against damage during dynamic stretching. This allows for a large range and high forces to be created. An example would be leg swings or walking high kicks to stretch the hamstrings in a dynamic fashion.
PNF and Loaded stretching
PNF and Loaded stretching combine the two mechanisms that are in use during static and dynamic stretching. The stretch is held in position which, lengthens the muscle fibres and tensions the connective tissue. However, when doing PNF or loaded stretching the muscle is required to contract within a lengthened position. This creates higher tension within the muscle which, decreases the signalling from the muscle spindle and creates stability at the lengthened range. This causes the muscle to become accustomed to the range more efficiently than static stretching. An example would be partner stretching for the hamstring or a static RDL to lengthen the hamstrings under load.
Now, you understand what is happening when you stretch. You can apply it to your training to increase your flexibility and mobility. Use dynamic stretching before a training session, you can use loaded stretching during your strength training and then do static stretching away from your training or competition. Also, remember that improving flexibility takes time and consistency, stick to it and be patient with improvements.
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