Ever seen what happens to a rubber band when you stretch it? There has been a debate in the fitness world for decades about whether you should exercise cold and head out on the trails first thing, or if there are benefits to stretching either before, after, or both. Have you ever found an old, cold rubber band and tried to stretch it? What will likely happen is that it will crumble in your hands. Although a little more dramatic, that is what happens when your muscles aren’t warm and ready to be exercised.
The way that muscles grow is through a process of teardown and rebuild. When you exercise a muscle, you create tiny tears in the muscle fiber. Those little tears force the muscle to rebuild and rejuvenate. That requires that it build cells around the damage to strengthen the muscle itself. That is how muscles grow and how you maintain muscles. At any point, your muscles are either being torn or repaired. It is the cycle of muscle growth and maintenance.
When muscles are weak, or in the process of recovery, what they will do is shorten and tighten. They retract when either damaged or weak. When you try to stretch them, you are more likely to sustain injury or tears. If, however, you stretch muscles incrementally to create change in them, it is possible to elongate them.
When a muscle is in its elongated state, it is has a lot more strength. When you stretch daily, before and after exercising, you are less likely of injury and things like trigger points and muscle strains.
Every muscle in your body is connected to every other. Therefore, when one muscle is shortened, it pulls on the rest of the muscles around it. That puts additional wear and tear on the adjoining musculature and creates weakness. When the muscles stretch around joints and the spinal cord, it can be like a pulley, pulling muscles out of alignment and wreaking havoc as a whole.
When you stretch before exercise, you awaken your muscles and warm them up so that they perform better without injury. The heat helps to elongate the muscles before you begin to engage in sports or bodybuilding. It also makes your muscles, less vulnerable to injury. That is why you should not only warm up before exercising but also take at least five to ten minutes stretching the muscles to condition and keep them strong.
After exercising, stretching is just as important. Exercise works specifically by taxing your muscle tissue and tearing it down. The more tear you experience, the bigger growth you will gain, because it will take more cells to repair the muscle. The problem is that when you create a tear in the muscle, it will retract to protect itself, creating short and tight muscles.
If you take the time to stretch after your workout, run, or even a game of soccer, you will not only ensure that they don’t shorten and create weakness, but you will increase the blood flow to the muscles allowing them to heal quicker. There are times when the damage done can lead to tiny little bundles of muscle bands that can cause some serious pain. These small bundles are called “trigger points”. They are the result of weaknesses, in certain areas of the body, and will likewise cause a shortening of the muscles increasing your likelihood of injury.
Stretching is a way to keep your muscles healthy, elongated and ready to do the job you need them to. Increasing blood flow, helping in the recovery phase, and aiding to get you back out there quicker, are just some of the benefits. Stretching also ensures that you aren’t opening yourself up to an injury in the future, or creating a scenario of imbalance. An imbalance can put undue hardship on both bones and muscles.
Lastly, stretching keeps your muscles in their elongated state, which is when they are at their strongest and helps to work against painful conditions like trigger points and myofascial pain syndrome. That is really just a fancy term for widespread trigger points. There is no debate that stretching is one of the best ways to keep yourself off of the injured list and to get back out there sooner.