Are you stretching or working your muscles?

Are you ‘Stretching’ or ‘Working’ a Muscle?

Confusing working a muscle with stretching a muscle is really common. When you go to the gym or your exercise class are you strengthening or stretching your muscles? Can you tell the difference, what are the benefits of each? How do you know which you should be doing

What happens when you work a muscle?
When you ‘work’ a muscle you tighten the muscle fibres, either by shortening the muscle or by holding it in a static contraction. In order to ‘work’ a muscle there has to be effort on your part. The brain needs to send messages to the muscle to activate and engage it. This gives a sensation of strength and if continued will make the muscle tire and ache, maybe giving a ‘burning’ sensation. You can also physically feel the muscle harden. Try pulling your abdominal muscles in as hard as you can. Prod across your tummy and feel the muscle harden.

Why should you strengthen a muscle?
To give support and stabilisation to the bony structures of the body. This is especially important for the shoulder girdle, pelvis and knees.
Strong muscle tone will enable the body to move effectively with less effort. This in turn means that the body can move more before becoming tired.

What happens when you stretch a muscle?
When you stretch a muscle you are trying to lengthen it. To do this one end of the muscle is stabilised and the other is moved to a longer position. In practise this is hard to achieve and frequently the stabilised end of the muscle ‘cheats’ by subtly moving to protect the tight muscle and prevent it stretching. Stretching usually involves you taking up a position without consciously putting in any muscle activation.
A common example of this is seen when trying to stretch the gluteus (hip) area. To try this, lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and spine neutral (relaxed with a natural gap under and below the waist. Put your right foot across the left knee, lift the left foot off the floor to bring your knees towards your chest. This should give a stretch across the gluteus (hip) area, over the butt cheek down the back of the right side. The pelvis end of the muscle is static and the other end has moved. Now check whether your back changed its position when you lifted your feet off the floor. Ideally your back will still be neutral. If it has moved to be flat on the floor this will have moved the pelvis end of the muscle, giving your lumbar spine a stretch it doesn’t need and leaving the gluteus area tight. Roll your pelvis to put the gap back and feel how that changes the stretch as the pelvis is put back into a stable position.

Why should you stretch a muscle?
Some muscles need to be stretched as they shorten through daily activities and this leads to muscle imbalance and pain.
Modern lifestyles can cause other muscles to lengthen. Stretching these will not help and could do further damage as they actually need to be shortened by strength exercises.
There are frequently muscles which are tight but the body protects that tightness so although stretching would be beneficial it is hard to achieve.

In Conclusion
Try to strengthen the weak muscles within your body. When you stretch try to ensure that the correct muscle gets the benefit.
Most people have a pattern of weak lengthened muscles which need shortening and strong tight muscles which need lengthening. A postural assessment will identify these so you can work and stretch to correct imbalances whether in a class, at the gym or in everyday life.

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Just how much flexibility do you need?

Just how flexible do you need to be?

Recently I’ve been looking at the advantages and disadvantages of different levels of flexibility which raises the question of ‘how flexible do I need to be?’

During my early training as a dancer the answer was always ‘as flexible as possible’. Being able to ‘do the splits’, put hands flat on the floor with straight legs or the gymnasts ‘box splits’ was something to aspire to. Sadly I could never do any of these without a great deal of effort. My body simply wasn’t made to be that flexible.

Over the years working as a full time fitness instructor I stretched my body on a daily basis and did achieve an above average level of flexibility. Over the years I noticed that a number of clients would comment that the seated stretches (reaching for the feet) gave them backache. This made me question the validity of these exercises, to question why we need to do them at all and how much flexibility we actually need.

The answers to these questions took me through Postural Assessment techniques looking at the effect of our day to day posture on our bodies. From here I looked into Bio Mechanics, how each part of our body interacts with another and the effect that muscle imbalance has on our posture.

The way in which our bodies respond to exercise varies as our bodies are all slightly different. A stretch for one person will result in a strain for another. An exercise may be designed to strengthen and/or stretch, but in a specific individual it may create imbalanced strength and strain rather than stretching. The key is in finding exercises which strengthen and stretch without straining while keeping the body in a balanced position. This is an individual process. The level of stretch depends on a variety of complex relationships within the body. Many people with rounded shoulders (kyphotic posture) will have lengthened inactive muscles across the shoulder area and weakness in the pelvic area. Those with a hollow back (lordotic posture) are likely to have tightness in the hip flexor which can make it difficult to stretch the hamstring without impingement.

Sitting on the floor leaning over towards the feet puts a huge strain on the lumbar region of the spine. Many stretches allow the pelvis to twist encouraging instability in an already unstable area. Bio Mechanic training shows how often (especially in women) the pelvis twists to give a greater degree of movement in a hip stretch. This results in no stretch to the area which is being targeted.
Why do we do these stretches? How long do your hamstrings need to be? If you are an Olympic hurdler then the answer is likely to be very different to someone who sits in the office all day and plays a little golf at the weekends. For the average person the amount of flexibility we need is surprisingly low. When did you last need to kick your foot above 90 degrees?

Then, there are a whole group of people who have the opposite problem – hypermobility. These are people with joints which move beyond the normal range of movement. They are prone to sprains and dislocations and in later life frequently arthritis. They need exercise to stabilise the joints and to learn what a normal range of movement is. For this group strength and stabilisation is far more important than stretching.

In a group exercise class it is easy to be carried with the group and stretch as far as possible regardless of your body’s ability or needs. As well as not being good for you this could actually be harmful.

Next time you think about stretching bear the following points in mind:
How much flexibility do you actually need to live your life and do your activities comfortably?
Do you ever have backache after an exercise session? This could be due to the stretch positions putting unnecessary strain on your back.
Do you have hyper mobile joints? It could be that you don’t need to stretch at all, or need to stabilise the joint prior to assuming a stretch position.
Once you have considered these points you can choose how far to take each stretch and gain the maximum benefit.

If having read this you are unsure how your body reacts to stretching and would like to check your positioning and technique in the exercises you currently practise at the gym, in a class or at home do contact me to book an appointment.