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The Static Stretch – Outdated or Understated

(This blog is brought to you by ‘The Physio Specialists’, a new addition to Cynergi Health and Fitness Club!)

The Physiology Corner

Nowadays it has become a well-established fact that warming up prior to a work-out should be dynamic and full of movement. So where does the classic static stretch come in to play? In a day and age were cutting edge technology is being introduced into the world of injury prevention and rehabilitation, does the static stretch still have a role to play at all?

First of all, let’s have a look at the physiology of static stretching, what’s actually happening inside those muscle fibres and finally what are the benefits of the static stretch?

The basic concept of static stretching is simple enough to explain, we maintain a tissue in its elongated state for a prolonged period of time in order to get said tissue to “elongate” and therefore move more freely and effectively in day to day life. This obviously has serious implications in the sports injury prevention and athletic performance world but also effects the quality of life of any individual. 

Muscles vary in shape and size, and serve many different purposes. Most large muscles, like the hamstrings and quadriceps (the muscles in the front and back of your legs) control motion. Other muscles, like the heart, and the muscles of the inner ear, perform other functions. At the microscopic level however, all muscles share the same basic structure.

I’ll go into a little more depth regarding what’s happening at a microscopic level. At the highest level, the (whole) muscle is composed of many strands of tissue called fascicles. Each fascicle is composed of fasciculi which are bundles of muscle fibers. The muscle fibres are in turn composed of tens of thousands of thread-like myofybrils, which can contract, relax, and elongate. The myofibril is therefore the basic element of movement. If we crank up that microscope another level, we’ll be looking at a sarcomere, the microscopic brick building the myofibril strand. The cement keeping that sarcomere together is a myofilament. Break down that myofilaments and we’ll see a huge amount of contractile proteins, primarily actin and myosin. These contractile proteins, actin and myosin, are therefore the building blocks of the human body. 

Simply put, at a microscopic level, actin and myosin contract, giving us movement. 

How to stretch?

Perhaps a somewhat over-discussed topic here but I still find that the majority of athletes and patients currently do more damage than good whilst “stretching”. Whilst performing a correct stretch one should be able to feel that muscular “pull” but not maintain an uncomfortable or painful range. Find that correct range and hold your stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds, none of that jumping around and jerking at the end of range. Another important point to keep in mind is that not all stretches were created equal! 

Lets summarise: 

  1. Find a comfortable range (level of stretch), and stick to it!
  2. Maintain a stretch over a minimum of 20 seconds.
  3. Don’t jerk or bounce during your stretch. 
  4. Always consult a health-care professional if you are unsure about which stretch is best for you. 

Certain stretch techniques are much better at isolating specific muscle groups than others; therefore, more often than not, a generic stretching regime may not fit an individual’s specific needs (especially if one is returning from injury). Whilst there are a number of different stretches that tend to target specific groups very well, these may be slightly too advanced for someone fresh to the world of stretching or an individual recovering from injury! Therefore, as a word of advice; stretch regularly but stretch intelligently. Stretching is a powerful injury prevention and rehabilitation tool when used correctly and under the correct guidance.

When to Stretch?

This seems to be another area were a number of athletes, fitness enthusiasts or “weekend warriors” tend to go wrong. Whilst “warming-up” should include lots of dynamic movement and promote increasing blood flow, the static stretch still has an important role to play. If planning to squat or bench-press at the gym for example, dynamic stretching and mobility of the muscles you will be using is a great idea. Think about recreating the movements you will be completing later in the session, foam rolling and preparing the body for movement.  This will promote using full range of motion and correct form when training. The same goes for runners, cyclists, cross-fit athletes etc. 

Current research indicates that static stretching will not promote recovery following an intense session. That being said, I am still a fan of having athletes and patients stretch following training. I find that this not only promotes injury prevention during future work-outs but also serves to calm-down the central nervous system, help the athlete to relax and feel better following exercise. 

Happy Stretching!