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Tales from the Texan!

Should I stretch? Part I

Travis Burkybile

Happy Friday everyone! I want to talk about a topic that is always being debated in the fitness world. Stretching is a very widely misunderstood by most folks. They believe it is a necessary evil that is perhaps boring at best, and painful at worst. I hope to shed a little light on this subject today, and will have follow-up posts that will dive farther into the topic.

When you think about stretching, the word flexibility usually comes to mind. No one seems to have enough of it, and it is like finding a unicorn for some. They believe it is largely unattainable. Too time-consuming to pursue. For a simple definition, flexibility might be described as the quality of our soft tissues and their ability to stretch. Hence the term stretching. The problem with this definition is that mostly describes a passive use of our bodies, meaning that we aren't engaging in an active movement. Mobility is a more helpful definition that means we have a combination of flexibility and control of our body through space and multiple planes of motion. 

So back to the question; should I stretch? Most people would identify areas that are "tight" or "painful" as targets for their stretching enthusiasm. This is not always a helpful course of action, and in many cases can worsen the problem. Some of the most common issues plaguing the average person working at a desk all day are back and neck problems. They will complain of aches, tingling, and numbness throughout these areas and the upper extremities. They sit in a forward fold all day long, and seek relief by stretching these areas. Then you get the occasional hour-long massage, which of course focuses on the "problem spots."  If you look at the presentation of their posture you will see that the posterior side of the body is actually very overstretched in specific areas, and the anterior side of the body is actually shortened significantly.

The body is actually in desperate need of strength and relaxing the overstretched tissue in the back half, and more flexibility by lengthening the muscles in the front half. Think of it this way- it you compress a rubber band there is still force being applied to it. If you stretch it with the equal amount of force it will create more wear and break sooner. So we want to create an optimal relationship between counteracting muscles and tissue surrounding our joints.

Flexibility and strength are two sides to the same coin. Your body will only allow you to use a range of motion that is not restricted by these soft tissue limitations. It also will only allow movement when the nervous system feels safe and sure that allowing you to access that motion will not cause injury. Tightness is often a sign of poor strength and stability in that joint or range of movement. It is your body's ways of trying to protect you from injury. In the short term it is better to have limited motion than risk injury. Unfortunately, in the long term this can create uneven joint wear and soft tissue changes that can be very damaging. We need to identify specific areas that need better soft tissue quality, and areas that need more strength. In many cases you need both!

In the next post in this series I will cover some general strategies to combat common problems. Have a great weekend!