Want more gains in the gym? You need to be more flex­i­ble

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - AMELIA JEAN JONES words MDI DIG­I­TAL il­lus­tra­tions

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.


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.

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