I’ve talked about hamstring stretching specifically in a previous post but today I want to take a deeper dive into stretching as a whole. The idea of stretching is an old one and ironically it is one that most people think they should do more of. Tight hamstrings plague us all to the point of being a driver for low back pain, right? Tight upper traps from stress lead to neck pain and headaches, right? Meh. These ideas were standard thoughts across much of healthcare and I still hear many people regurgitate what they know from “back in my day”. Actually I still see a lot of people engaging in stretching routines prior to engaging in physical activity.
These individuals are under the impression that stretching muscles reduces the occurrence of injury and improves the performance of said muscle. The problem here is that it is a new day, thankfully, and we have had many scientific research articles published that highlight the reality of this often confusing topic.
Let’s break down stretching into 3 main classes:
Static stretching which involves holding a sustained stretch for a sustained period of time, often 20-30 seconds.
Static stretching is what most think of when thinking about stretching that feels “good”. They tend to push their stretches to the point of really feeling a big stretch. If it isn’t a big stretch what is the point right? WRONG. Even if this is the method of stretching implemented there is no evidence supporting more is better. Actually the opposite is found and to top that off this manner of stretching is found to reduce muscle performance when implemented prior to activity. More specifically it was seen that static stretching of the hamstrings specifically reduces eccentric strength. This is problematic because you need to be able to sustain eccentric strength to avoid injuries. If you just love this kind of stretching I would really encourage utilizing it after exercise to avoid the loss of performance or injury.
Dynamic stretching: stretching which involves engagement of the muscles that will be worked through an optimal range of motion during activity without a sustained hold.
Dynamic stretching has grown very popular lately, especially in the more active population. This form of stretch involves utilizing the muscles that will be worked to actively stretch through a functional range. While each stretch has the ability to increase extensibility, dynamic stretching also increases blood flow and primes your brain to activate the groups involved. When performed correctly you do not get the loss of performance seen with static stretching. Think; giving your body a head start in terms of performing optimally from the initial repetition. A really simple example of this would be performing full depth body weight squats prior to loading up a bar for your leg day.
Nerve gliding/flossing: involves applying tension to specific tissues that are believed to elongate the nerve fiber embedded.
The third type of stretch; nerve flossing/gliding is something a lot of people are unaware of. It is often used during rehabilitation protocols involving nerve irritation. The idea is to apply gentle tension to the nerve by utilizing the joints that the peripheral nerves cross. The easiest example and most common one I use is the sciatic nerve glide. This nerve is actually a bundle of multiple nerves that join and exit around the middle of your buttock(piriformis area). It then travels down the leg and branches off at various locations all the way to the foot.
If you cannot tell I lean much heavier on the last 2 with most of my patients. That does not mean there is not a place for static stretching though so don’t read what I am not saying. Just like with everything else in life it is about setting and goals. Everyone has specific goals and a stretching program should be built around these rather than a clinicians preference.