WHEN TO STRETCH
Opening up compartments after warming them up should be done “lightly” before major lifting or output. More active/aggressive stretching can be done after the workout to help prevent muscle shortening and tightness later. Over-stretching prior to lifting can be counter productive for strength building. Under-stretching after workout can be counter productive for flexibility and mobility.
WHEN/WHEN NOT TO ROLL
Doing light rolling prior to lifting or workout can help open muscle fibers, separate the fascia from the muscle/skin allowing better movement, flush new blood into compartments, and help break up “scar” tissue for better mobility during lift/workout. Over-rolling prior to lifting and workout can irritate compartments. Rolling after lifting/workout can help flush lactic acid build up and help minimize muscle knotting and tightness. Paying attention to difference between “symptom” vs “problem” areas.
Avoid over-rolling attachment/trigger points causing over irritation. Go after the problem areas for relief. Don’t “over-roll” for the sake of feeling good – it could cause excess inflammation thus causing slow down to recovery.
There is a lot of information about stretching, so let’s start from the beginning and cover the basics so we can do what is best for our body.
Stretching is a misnomer. The word stretching makes you think that if a muscle is physically short, you can stretch it and it will lengthen. That isn’t the case. Muscles are contractile tissue, meaning they shorten and they lengthen actively. Think of it like a piece of meat with an electrode plugged into it. If the electrode zaps the muscle, it would make it contract and shorten. If you unplugged the electrode, the piece of meat would relax and lengthen.
When we do stretching, we aren’t likely making the piece of meat physically longer, but rather getting it to relax. The goal of stretching should be to improve range of motion by making muscles relax so we can take a joint into a larger range of motion. The goal of stretching shouldn’t be to try and make the muscle physically longer. During a stretch, the tissue that is under load should be the muscle or the capsule of the joint. The capsule is essentially the connective tissue around the joint itself that encloses it. What you don’t want to do when stretching is push two bones together and pinch. This is actually quite commonly done.
When would this be the case? Consider the elbow. The thing that limits your elbow from straightening out farther is bone hitting bone. It usually isn’t that your biceps are tight. The end of the joint is two bones coming into contact. Consider your elbow bending. What limits that? Typically it is your forearm running into your biceps. This would be called tissue approximation. When stretching, we don’t want to be running two bones into each other or aimlessly having tissue approximation. We want to be putting a muscle under load in a strategic way to get it to relax. Stretching should never hurt or feel pinchy. If you feel pinching while stretching, you should stop and modify the stretch somehow.
There is some research to show stretching before a workout decreases athletic performance. For our purposes, before workouts, we will do active stretching and typically do it loaded (meaning under bodyweight or with some extra weight).
Rolling out with a lacrosse ball or a foam roller is a great way to make a muscle feel better or relax and it can frequently be effective at reducing pain. The mechanism behind foam rolling isn’t breaking up scar tissue. The mechanism behind these methods is more likely getting the muscles to relax that you are pressing on. There are thousands of nerve endings in the skin and connective tissue. When stimulated (via rolling), those nerve endings cause the local muscles underneath to relax. This is why rolling out is temporary. You feel tight, you roll out, you feel loose. Then you feel tight again. Rinse and repeat. Day in and day out. It’s because the muscles relax from rolling and then tighten up again.
Rolling out shouldn’t be painful to where you can’t relax. If you can’t relax, you are tightening up. The whole point of rolling out is to get muscles to loosen up. So if you are rolling out to loosen up but tightening because it’s so painful, you are working against yourself. This isn’t a good long term strategy and you should lighten up so you can relax. Remember, we aren’t rolling out to break down tissue. We are rolling out to get muscles to relax and decrease tension, so more isn’t better.
WHEN TO ROLL OUT
Rolling out can be effective before and after workouts. Before workouts, it should be used for 30 seconds to 2 minutes per area to get the muscles loose and relax where they need to be. After the rolling out, there should be some active stretching and loaded stretching performed so that you take advantage of the new range of motion the rolling out allowed for. After a workout, rolling out can help to relieve sore muscles and decrease discomfort. Again, this should be done for 30 seconds to 2 minutes per area. Anything beyond that may feel good at the time but be of limited value.
TYPES OF STRETCHING
When it comes to stretching, there are many varieties. It’s important to note, though, that the goal of stretching is to get muscles to relax to get into a lengthened position versus actually making the muscle itself longer. Muscles themselves won’t physically lengthen unless you hold them in a stretch for hours on end (some studies suggest 24 hours are required). So we know we aren’t going to lengthen a muscle physically, so that shouldn’t be the focus.
The most common types of stretching are: passive; active unloaded; active loaded stretching; and muscle energy techniques.
This is the form of stretching everyone is accustomed to. You want to stretch your hamstrings? Get your leg up on a chair or desk and bend forward to stretch. Passive stretching is of limited value both for long term change and athletic performance. There are many methods more powerful and effective, so we will focus on those.
ACTIVE UNLOADED STRETCHING
This form of stretching involves you actively moving a body part. Let’s give an example of the hamstrings. Passive stretching of the hamstring is putting your leg up on a chair, bending forward, and feeling your hamstring stretch. Not much is happening. Active stretching of the hamstring would be a drill called a straight leg raise. You’d be laying on your back, one leg bent with your foot flat on the ground, and one leg straight. You’d lift the straight leg up toward the ceiling, keeping the knee locked, as far as you could. You’d do this slow and under control for reps, going as far as possible without compensation.
With active stretching, you are using the opposing muscle group to stretch your hamstring (quads and hip flexors). This is more functional since when you are actually moving around, you’re quads and hip flexors will have to work against your hamstrings. This is a much more effective method of stretching than passive stretching.
ACTIVE LOADED STRETCHING
When performing loaded stretching, we are typically doing some form a ‘negative’ rep of an exercise. For the hamstrings, a loaded stretch is the negative of a Romanian deadlift (a deadlift with the knees slightly bent). The Romanian deadlift (RDL) would be performed starting with light weight and focusing on the negative or the lowering. This makes the hamstrings have to go from a shorter length to longer length under load, which is even more applicable than active unloaded stretching. This would be performed for a given number of reps and sets.
MUSCLE ENERGY TECHNIQUES (METs)
There are many forms of MET stretches, so let’s cover the basics. METs essentially trick the nervous system into getting a muscle to relax. A popular MET is called contract-relax. For the hamstring, you’d get into the passive stretch described above. You’d get into a mild stretch and then contract your hamstring at around 30% of your maximum effort and hold for 10 seconds. After holding for 10 seconds, you’d relax and attempt to get deeper into the stretch. You’d repeat for 3-5 sets.
What this technique (and other METs) does is get the nervous system to allow the muscle to relax and get into a longer length. It isn’t physically making the muscle longer, it is getting it to relax.
Those are the four main types of stretching that we will use in this program and a bit about each one and why it is used. Passive stretching won’t be used frequently as the other forms are more functional and effective.