BIT OF A STRETCH
Want more gains in the gym? You need to be more flexible
Like hand-washing your knitwear and flossing each time you brush, stretching is that thing you know you should do but, well, don’t. But that seems set to change. With the fitness crowd flocking to stretch studios like Power Stretch and Lymbr in the US and, more recently, Purestretch in the UK as well as other dedicated classes, you could soon be ticking off a stretch alongside your spin and strength sessions.
‘THE MORE YOU WORK OUT, THE MORE YOU NEED TO STRETCH’
For most of us, stretching’s been consigned to the cool-down – an inconvenience tacked on to the end of your ‘real’ sweat session. It’s not really doing much, right? Wrong. The fact is, substituting some of your cardio or strength time for a good stretch could make your body feel younger and healthier, and make your workouts more effective and sustainable. ‘To increase muscle mass, the body has to produce new collagen proteins,’ explains Tony Kay, professor of biomechanics at Northampton University. ‘The more strength training you do, the more collagen you produce; the more collagen you have in muscles, the less elastin, and the stiffer the tissue.’ In other words: all that strength work is killing your flexibility unless you stretch it out. So what’s happening inside the muscle as it stretches? And aside from stopping your glutes turning to stone, are there any other benefits? ‘Muscles contain cells that overlap at rest. As the muscle stretches, the area of overlap decreases, allowing the muscle fibres to elongate,’ says Professor Kay. ‘When the muscle fibre is at its maximum length, it aligns itself in the direction of tension, helping to straighten out damaged or scarred tissue.’ It could even prevent damage occurring in the first place. ‘The aim of flexibility work is to be able to freely move your body through a wider range of motion. It reduces wear and tear on active muscle tissue and connective tissue around the joints, reducing the risk of injury,’ explains Luke Worthington, personal trainer, sports scientist and head of trainer education at Third Space, London. So how are stretching and mobility work different to doing a few yoga asanas? Unlike yoga, the focus isn’t mainly on your breath – it’s about the physical benefits of allowing muscles to stretch. Which means limbering up has significant strength rewards. ‘Increasing flexibility makes exercises like squats and deadlifts easier and reduces your risk of muscle soreness the next day,’ says Worthington. But the effects aren’t just for the short term. ‘Being limber is important because, as you age, the whole body naturally tightens,’ says Hakika Dubose, founder of Power Stretch Studios, US. ‘This tightening causes tension and eventually will affect your posture and the way you move, whether working out or otherwise. But you can counter it with stretching. Lengthening muscles increases blood flow and helps muscle fibres let go of tension, so you can stand up straighter.’ Stretching has a psychological component, too. ‘Pain is your brain’s perception of a threat to homeostasis (the body’s status quo),’ says Worthington. ‘When you move your limbs to the end of their normal range, your body feels it as pain because it wants you to call a halt to prevent injury. But when you persevere and hold these moderately painful new positions for an extended period of time, you show your brain that there’s nothing to worry about, so the next time the pain will be less.’ In other words? The more you stretch, the easier it gets. How a stretch should feel has been widely contested but Professor Kay says to aim for ‘mild discomfort’. Too much pain can cause the muscle to contract and cause injury; too little and it won’t really have an effect. But what’s most important is where you feel it. ‘You should feel the stretch in the middle of the muscle – not near a joint, as this can put stress on the ligaments,’ he explains. How much you need to stretch depends on how much you train and what your current flexibility levels are. Basically, the more you work out, the more you need to stretch. ‘An hour-long training session should include 15 minutes dedicated to stretching and mobility work,’ says Worthington. ‘If you’re really stiff, you might need an hour-long session in your weekly schedule dedicated to it.’ So when should you do it? Stretching pre-workout should be done with caution. ‘Stretching causes microscopic cellular damage in the tissue. Holding a stretch for longer than 60 seconds before a strengthtraining session can exacerbate the cellular damage, cause a lack of control over working muscles and lead to injury,’ says Professor Kay. Yikes. Stretching at the end of the session, however, will help prevent this – as well as stopping blood from pooling and causing soreness in the muscles you worked the next day. All the wins. Convinced? Good. Now turn the page for a month-long plan that’ll take you from stiff to supple in no time. You’re welcome.