– Or: Health and Wellness is all like serious business and stuff
Ok, I’ll admit it. I don’t stretch. Neither the truth nor my physical human body form. Stretching has never been my jam.
At least not with any regularity. Once in a blue moon? Maybe.
Except at some point a few weeks back I talked about the fact that I’ve been exercising again for what is now somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 months. Possibly longer; I’m not good at keeping track of stuff.
“But George,” you ask, “isn’t stretching supposed to be a healthy part of every workout routine?”
“But George,” you ask in follow-up, “isn’t stretching supposed to be a healthy part of daily life, whether or not we’re working out?”
“So George!” you ask in exasperation, “why are you a self-admitted NON STRETCHER??”
To which I would reply: “LAZINESS.” Immediately followed up by: “YOU ASK TOO MANY QUESTIONS! QUOTA REACHED!”
At least up to this point. A friend of mine has been talking about how beneficial stretching is in overall health, avoiding headaches, and generally feeling great. I admittedly know so very little about the subject when all is said and done, so based on their experiences I thought it might be nice to get a better look at some of the science behind it. Develop a more effective and formulated knowledge of the subject.
So let’s learn a whole mess of stuff on the topic and æffix a hearty STAMP OF APPROVAL.
Definition of Stretching
I could be a super dork and dive into different definitions of stretching. How one can stretch the truth of a story in order to spin and weave a tale of epic proportions. Or the concept of stretching an earth dollar in order to maximize the return on its expenditure. You know, stuff like that. But I’m not going to be that super dork this time. Let’s get back to the human body.
Golgi Tendon Organ
I was today years old when I learned that there is a thing called the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO). Not to be confused with a B4 Hammond Organ, the GTO is a nerve receptor that squats at the point where muscle meets tendon. Kind of a mediator holding peace talks except instead of trying to ease tension, it thrives on it. When the GTO senses tension – say, for example, in the form of oh, I don’t know, STRETCHING – it sends signals to the spinal cord announcing that negotiations are getting heated. The spinal cord, taking on the role of the placating diplomat, in turns sends a signal back via efferent neurons to tell the muscle to relax, effectively taking sides. The tendon walks away like a champ and the muscle feels like they left something at the table.
While the scenario above sounds one-sided, there is a purpose to this. The GTO monitors and regulates these situations to ensure that injury isn’t on today’s menu.
If Sleeping Beauty had managed to poke her finger on a muscle spindle instead of that of a spinning wheel, the story might have turned out significantly different. Like, say, instead of sleeping for 100 years she might have ended up fully beefcaking and punching that dragon right in the snout.
The muscle spindle is yet another protective measure built into the body to prevent injury. In this case, signals are sent once again to the benevolent spine letting it know that the length of the muscle has undergone a change. A stretch reflex is then invoked causing a resistance to the elongating nature of the muscle. The faster the elongation happens, the stronger the stretch reflex is to try and compensate.
It’s like having an entire fleet of security built into the muscle structure to better prevent injuries from taking place.
Yet ultimately the goal of repeat stretching is to enable the stretch reflex to simmer down a bit so that a good, long stretch can take place. Training our bodies to do the things that we want them to do. Or something to that effect.
When a muscle is stretched, it increases blood flow to that area. The blood vessels widen up to enable a larger quantity of blood to flow which in turn creates more demand on the heart to supply as such. Newer research has hypothesized that this will improve overall circulatory health. Lower blood pressure and a boost in blood vessel production being side effects of this, what could possibly go wrong? Seems like everybody wins in that context!
Methods of Stretching
Most sources that I could find when hunting around agree that there are two very common types of stretching: static and dynamic. Whether or not this is meant as a simplification or way to keep written material to a minimum is difficult to say, but if you were to jump over to the fine folks at MIT, their article linked here would argue that there are, in fact, at least SEVEN different types. And because wordiness is absolutely my jam, I’m going to touch on each of them because I like learning stuff! Here we go!
It’s also entirely possible I’m going to get some of these wrong. Please feel free to provide corrections as they come up!
Sometimes roped in with “Passive” stretching, Static stretching in and of itself is when we push a muscle to a limit and then hold it there by our own actions. We’ll get into passive stretching in a moment. An example of static stretching would be to bend down and attempt to touch your toes without bending your knees too much to stretch out the back of the legs. I say attempt because I haven’t been able to do that in a long, long time. When you have gone over as far as you can go, you hold there for a predetermined amount of time – WITHOUT BOUNCING – before returning to your normal bipedal position.
Dynamic stretching is wont to be used in the context of warming up or preparation of an activity, be it working out or a sport or the like. These stretches are controlled motions in the arms and legs that go to the extent of range of motion without exceeding those limits.
Remember that part where I said earlier about NOT BOUNCING when stretching? Well, ballistic stretching is going to bust through that rule. ….. ballistically. This is a very controversial method of stretching due to the potential for serious injury. MIT strongly recommends against this while the American Council on Exercise notes as follows:
“This type of stretching is typically used for athletic drills and utilizes repeated bouncing movement to stretch the targeted muscle group. While these bouncing movements usually trigger the stretch reflex and may cause an increased risk for injury, they can be safely performed if done from low-velocity to high-velocity and preceded by static stretching”
tldr: proceed at your own risk. Or actually, don’t. Seek a professional who can help you to make certain if this should or should not be part of your lexicon.
While similar to static stretching in that a position is held, the methodology is a bit different. Positions are held utilizing the agonist muscles and can generally only be maintained for 10 seconds and no more than 15. Many yoga poses are considered to be active stretching.
Passive stretching differs from Static stretching in that passive stretching is usually an individual who is in a relaxed state and brought to a stretch by an external force. Examples of this could be a physical therapist assisting an individual with a stretch while the individual remains passive.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one because the explanation is complicated. It almost looks like math in physical form and math is scary. Launching into it: Isometric stretching involves getting into the position of a passive stretch – see above – tensing the stretched muscle against an immovable force like a wall or The Force for 7-15 seconds, and then relaxing that muscle for 20 seconds.
See? Math. However, one of the benefits to this type of stretching is speedier static-passive flexibility. It also seems to decrease pain, which …. <suppressed chuckle> …. can’t hurt.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
That’s a mouthful.
PNF stretching is a way of combining Passive and Isometric stretching into a method of rapidly increasing flexibility. The short version seems to be that it takes advantage of muscle vulnerability from the one activity and immediately capitalizes on it by adding the other activity to stretch beyond the initial barrier. To quote the MIT article:
“PNF stretching techniques take advantage of the sudden “vulnerability” of the muscle and its increased range of motion by using the period of time immediately following the isometric contraction to train the stretch receptors to get used to this new, increased, range of muscle length. ”
That is ALSO a mouthful.
More detailed reading on the subject can be found linked at Healthline if you would like to learn more. I’m going to stick with the overview though because it’s a LOT.
Benefits of Stretching
Right out of the gate: in many circumstances, stretching feels great. If you are so inclined to do the stereotypical “morning stretch” upon shedding the cocoon of your comfortable resting place, you know this.
For the gym rats
Within the context of fitness, this applies as well. For those of you who participate in “leg day” (yes, I kiss my mother with that mouth) if you haven’t done some calf and thigh stretching after the fact you are missing out. All of those hundreds of thousands of æfferents carrying that “hurts so good” feeling to the brain, which in turn allows us to keep at it! Stepping on the edge of something with the front of your feet and letting your heels slowly drop and feeling the tightness slowly ebb away after a good run? Yes please and thank you.
For the … uhh … -not- gym rats
Outside of the context of exercise recovery, the act of stretching just by itself as a separate activity is a really good idea! Throwing this into your daily routine or even a few times a week can have some significant benefits. Muscle and joint health will receive a boost that would otherwise be absent. Effective muscle movement and your posture will get quite the level up. (we talked about posture a while back in another blog post) A huge deal though? Tension reduction. If you happen to be prone to headaches or insomnia, this is an extra important potential addition to your day. That simple act of stretching out those muscle fibers and easing tension in the neck and shoulders could make a huge difference in both of those things, which likely improves overall mood and the ability to do stuff and things.
For the Singers and Voice Actors
If you think for ONE SECOND that I forgot about my singing and acting compatriots ………. er …….. you’re right. I did. <insert shameful feeling of shame here>
Completely got by me until the proof-reading process. Whoops! BUT I’M HERE FOR YOU NOW. THAT COUNTS FOR SOMETHING, RIGHT? <insert puppy dog eyes here>
Singing and voice acting do have some things that are in common. They both use similar muscle groups and they both utilize the vocal folds, lips, and face much more than, say, someone dead lifting their own body weight. Although if you’ve ever been in a gym, there’s always that One Guy who vocalizes REALLY LOUDLY with Each. And. Every. Single. Rep.
He’s not singing or voice acting. He’s ….. loud.
Where was I?
Oh yeah! Stretches for us.
Being relaxed and free of muscle tension in the course of singing and acting are very, very important components of the process. Why is that? Theories once upon a time would indicate that you must “utilize the diaphragm,” “squeeze this,” or “gird against that” or what have you. I’m vividly remembering a Kentucky vocal coach who used to tell kids at a singing camp that in order to properly sing they must “squeeze their sphincter.”
Man, the early 2000s were a weird era.
None of those things are going to help at ALL.
Why? Because each of those conventional activities are going to cause tension in your body. Tension in your body when focusing on a specific area while trying to sing or vocalize will lead to tension in the neck and shoulders and, thus, vocal folds. Instead of the loose, free, effortless release of sound from the body you will instead sound like you’re full of rigidity and pressure. Maybe that works for an occasional role? But the overall effect will be unpleasant. Kinda like the way I sing because I never learned better.
(side note: if you’re a singing coach who can undo decades of bad habits, see me after class)
For the body, stick with the basics. Static stretching of the sides, the hamstrings, and arms are a great place to start. Light and slow rolling of the neck in circles one direction and then the next is a fantastic suggestion as well. But LIGHTLY. Do not stretch to the point of fatigue. You’re trying to loosen things up, not prepare for bench pressing with your face. Want to add a light massage to the neck around the area of the larynx? Get after it. Gently.
Lip trills seem kinda silly when in the thick of it. I love doing them in the car and seeing the looks on peoples faces when they see me pretending like I’m glitching out in an attempt to get a duck-face MySpace selfie.
Yawn! No, like really! That will actually stretch out some of the jaw and neck muscles you will want to release for ease of vocalization.
And then email me after reading the previous line to tell me what a jerk I am for the power of suggestion and the fact that you probably did yawn.
Risks of Improper Stretching
There are some stretches that, while considered to be beneficial to the majority, could do some damage in the short and long term. If you have low back pain or an injury causing that, some stretches that target the hamstrings and hip flexors could exacerbate that condition. The last thing you want to do is anything that would make a chronic low back pain condition worse. Consult with your doctor about effective methods of stretching those muscles that will keep the low back out of their business.
If you remember back to when you were in elementary school, you probably thought it was pretty cool to try to bend down and touch the ground with your hands. If you couldn’t quite reach it, no sweat! Just bounce your way down until you make contact. Piece of cake.
Bouncing through stretches is a Very Bad Idea. A one way ticket to potential injury. Unless the prospect of snapping a hamstring sounds appealing to you, avoid bouncing.
Trying to stretch way beyond your capabilities is also a Very Bad Idea. Another one way ticket to potential injury. Feeling tension is one thing, but there’s a significant difference between tension and pain. When it crosses the threshold into pain, back off and make certain you’re not causing or reawakening an injury.
What have we learned?
The short version is: stretching is really important on a variety of levels. Overall body health, potential reduction in a variety of ailments, increased blood flow, and vascular health just to name a few. Pre-workout can keep muscles from being injured, post-workout can increase overall flexibility.
While it seems like a no-brainer in terms of something that can benefit all of us, it’s still important to remember that it comes with risks when improperly implemented. It can be an effortful activity and sometimes it’s difficult to fit something like that into our extremely full schedules.
If I could display some massive effrontery, I would say that it’s absolutely worth our while to add some of it to our lives. Having done all this homework, I’m definitely going to be working out a way to get it into my daily routine. All to gain and nothing to lose it seems.
Join me in the stretch extravaganza!
Until next week,
-= george =-