Stretching is the most common pre-workout activity you will see in the gym as a warm up.
Its effects on flexibility and its effectiveness as a warm up will need to be examined separately as, as with all fitness based activities, it is highly dependent upon the individual and their chosen sport/exercise.
If you are trying to become less stiff, more mobile and just generally trying to move better then it is probably a good idea to get some stretching into your life.
Stretching will gradually warm up your tendons and your muscles to the point where you can push yourself a little bit further in terms of joint flexion.
This can be helpful in terms of fixing posture and creating a greater range of motion for some people, but even these things can be taken too far. Improving posture is about strengthening the weak muscles and stretching the tight ones – take the average officer worker as an example they will show slumped shoulders, this will mean :-
- Tight pectorals and front shoulders (anterior deltoids).
- Weak trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi and rear shoulders (posterior deltoids).
So to fix this you would have to strengthen that person’s upper back (yes, all of those muscles above are just a fancy way of saying ‘upper back’) while also stretching out their chest and shoulders.
The balance needs to be kept though, you don’t want to be overly flexible and too weak – you need to try and keep a good level of strength to match your flexibility.
In terms of range of motion, this depends on your sport. As another example, take the squat. For the everyday gym goer a squat depth of parallel is more than adequate for quadriceps (thigh), glute (butt) and hamstring (back of thigh) strength and size.
Indeed, practicing this movement will make everyday movements like getting in and out of a chair, or off a toilet, easier – never mind the added benefits of actually being stronger.
Too big a range of motion in this case will lead to having the weight on your back for a longer amount of time – when dealing with max weights this is not a prospect you want to consider.
It is worth touching on hypermobility here. Hypermobility is not the same as being overly flexible, as it often results in a lack of control over proper joint movement. To test for it you would try these;
- Flexion of the thumb to the forearm to make contact (L + R sides)
- Extension of the pinky finger to 90° past the hand (L + R sides)
- Hyperextension of the elbow past 10° or more (past neutral)
- Ability to touch palms to floor without bending of the knees
- Hyperextension of the knees past 10° or more
This test would be scored out of 9, a score of 5 or more is considered hypermobile.
Being more mobile might sound great but in this case you need to consider the effects this extra movement is having on your tendons and ligaments (the bits which keep your bones and muscles attached to each other).
Should you stretch to warm up then?
Well, yes and no. if you’re warming up to do some stretchy stuff, such as yoga or pilates then yes, you should. However, if your workout is more focused upon power and performance then you might want to limit the stretching. The warmer and ‘stretchier’ your tendons are the slower they are to create force.
In a power production sport such as sprinting or powerlifting this slowness could be the difference between going that little bit faster or that little bit stronger.
In those sports relying more upon performance, some stretching can be done in order to loosen off the muscles but a sports specific warm up would be preferable. So a sprinter might go for a stroll and then a jog, a powerlifter might squat with the bar, then 25% of their weight etc. This will increase blood flow to the muscles and then warm them up sufficiently to train, or compete.
Other forms of warming up for these sports might include foam rolling, which basically batters the muscle into submission so that it loosens off before you take it through its range of motion. It certainly isn’t the most comfortable thing to do but it can work wonders.
It has a similar effect to a sports massage, which, if you’re competing regularly, you should be getting often too as this will keep your muscles in good stead for these training sessions.
In Conclusion – is stretching good or bad?
You can probably guess the answer here. It depends. It depends on your sport or how you train, what you need for those sports or those movements, and how good your mobility is to begin with.
Most people are probably a bit tight and a bit immobile in this day and age so some stretching is generally good. However, the amount you choose to do should be dependent on your sport, goals and body type.