I am sitting here after a hard workout and I did not stretch afterwards. Fail. Now I am tight, achy and having some back pain.
I know stretching is the element of training that seems tedious and time consuming to many of you, but I cannot stress enough how important and useful it will be to you… before it’s too late. I’ve been there!
Optimal muscle length
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Our muscles have an optimal length that they function at. With this length, the muscles can contract with full strength, they can lengthen with ease, and they do not alter our normal biomechanical rhythms.
This is where we want to be. Optimal. So what the heck is optimal anyway?
Optimal is when we do not feel tight or constricted. We can perform exercise with ease and no pain. We have full range of motion of our joints. And everyone’s optimal is different.
How do muscles become shortened?
Unfortunately, for those of us who regularly exercise, many exercises are based on concentric contractions. A concentric contraction is one in which the muscle gets shorter as it moves a weight (or limb) through space. A great example is a biceps curl in which the arm begins in a straightened position and moves to where the hand is close to the shoulder.
Repetitions of movements that shorten a muscle will predispose the muscle to operate at a shorter length. Unfortunately, over time a body full of shortened muscles can cause problems, including limited function and pain.
Muscle lengthening exercises
This is where stretching becomes beneficial. After a workout full of muscle shortening exercises, we want to once again lengthen them. A proper stretch should be uncomfortable, but not painful. We don’t want to force our muscles. Instead stretch the muscle for at least a minute and be patient. (I know this is the hard part.)
What if we could combine a strengthening exercise that also lengthens the muscle at the same time. You are in luck! In comes the eccentric muscle contraction.
Think about that same bicep curl exercise. Instead focus on starting at the shortened end of the exercise, where your hand is at your shoulder. Choose a weight that is heavier than you normally handle. Keep your muscle shortened, but allow the weight to straighten your arm. This is an eccentric contraction and it ultimately is the only way you can add sarcomere (muscle fiber) length to your muscles. This type of exercise is also called a ‘negative’.
Partnered stretching after workouts
We can also apply this principle to our stretching routine. For this you will need a partner who can pull your muscle to a lengthened position as you resist. You will begin by shortening the muscle you are preparing to lengthen. Contract the muscle while your partner pulls you into a lengthened position. Continue contracting, but allow them to win.
This resisted stretching will encourage the actual muscle fibers to lengthen, unlike typical static stretching that acts mostly on the tendons.
In my experience, negatives or resisted partner stretching offers the most overall benefits of stretching. When your muscles are at an optimal length, they can more forcefully contract and keep you biomechanically sound. And after all, fitness is all about optimal function.
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