When I started college, I “attempted” to be on the cross country team for awhile. When I say attempted, I mean I was terrible at it. Sure I had the endurance, but I wasn’t as fast as the other runners. I had the willpower and the stamina, but I was a turtle among a pack of cheetahs! The experience had some profoundly positive effects on my life. First and foremost, it helped me gain a lot of perspective on distance running. This has helped me immensely as a personal trainer because, especially over the past couple years, I have had several people who run long distances approach me to improve their marathon game. Combined with a strong background in corrective exercise technique, I have learned how to assist runners in not only improving their race times but also in mitigating injury. Which brings me to my original contention: stretching needs to be a fact of life for everybody.
Along with a balanced, intuitive weightlifting regimen, stretching is the number one thing a runner, athlete, fitness enthusiast or even couch potato can do to avoid aches an pains. Try a few years of heavy weightlifting without stretching at the end of every single lift and see what happens. Neuromuscular imbalances begin to form and pain develops along with the imbalances. Statistically speaking, 80% of American adults are walking around with some form of low back pain. What they don’t realize is that with some really good strength training and stretching, for many of them back pain doesn’t have to be something they must live with.
So when is the appropriate time to stretch? There are many schools of thought on this topic, but based on the research that I have read, stretching after and not before any weightlifting routine is necessary. Stretching before lifting weights can inhibit force production and lead to a mediocre lift. Stretching at the end will actually elongate the muscle belly, help stage the muscles for growth and prevent injury. Also the endorphins released during post-workout stretching feel good and contribute to stretching as a highly effective cool down method. Stretching before a round of cardio is not a bad idea at all as force production isn’t a factor with cardiorespiratory exercise. Always stretch after any type of exercise.
As I stated before, stretching at the beginning of a lift is counterproductive and won’t do anything to prevent injury. When you were a little kid, did you ever take a piece of plastic and bend it and bend it and bend it? The plastic turned white and weakened, right? Picture the joints like this. The joints are tight and ready to lift some crazy weight and help make your muscles bigger and healthier and burn some fat in the process. By stretching we reduce our ability to produce as much force. The correct way to prepare for a lift is by using what is known as a specific warmup. By completing a couple of sets of exercises that will target the muscle groups you plan to work using light weight and moderate reps, you get the joints and muscles warmed up and acclimated to the work that lies ahead. For instance, if you were my client and we were at the outset of an arm workout, I might have you do a couple sets of standard issue dumbbell curls with some 10 or 12 pound dumbbells with 30 or 45 second breaks in between. Stretching doesn’t do as much to increase blood flow to the joints as a specific warmup and without a specific warmup, you really set yourself up for potential injury.
As this blog develops, I will expound more on stretching and how it can be used to manage pain (especially knee, low back and rotator cuff pain). I challenge you to think about stretching and how vital it is to being healthy. If you don’t stretch after you exercise, you might want to think about adding that to your workout regimen. It will have profound effects on your quality of life and how you feel! Happy Friday everyone!