Stretching has legitimate benefits – they’re just not the ones you assume

Stretching may be more key to recovery than performance, personal trainer Paul Landini writes.Cat London

For me one of the major take-aways of the COVID-19 pandemic is that reaching a consensus among industry professionals is about as easy as climbing the CN Tower blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back. Nowadays even basic principles (e.g., “viruses exist”; “vaccines are helpful”) are being called into question, often by people who are more interested in elevating their own status than actually helping anyone.

The fitness industry is as guilty as any other when it comes to obfuscating facts, but thankfully the stakes for us trainers aren’t all that high. No one will die as a result of arguing over rep schemes or exercise selection. But this of course doesn’t stop us from treating disagreements like personal affronts. I’ve had my own qualifications (not to mention my sanity) called into question several times over the course of my career all because I happen to be a proponent of one of the most contentious of fitness protocols: stretching.

It makes some sense why such a large contingent of fitness pros scoff at stretching. Studies have suggested that stretching can impede athletic performance because a stretched muscle doesn’t produce as much force; and it’s true the physical relief it provides is only temporary. All this means is if you’re a competitive sprinter and the difference between winning and losing is determined by fractions of a second, then it would be in your best interest to lay off the hamstring stretches before a race. For everyone else, though, stretching has some legitimate benefits – they’re just not the benefits you may assume them to be.

Stretching teaches body awareness

Something too many trainers forget – or are oblivious to – is that the vast majority of people who seek our services have a low level of what’s called “body awareness.” They don’t know the names of muscles or how they work, they don’t know how to make body parts move in a particular way or what a specific movement should feel like. Stretching provides a practical, hands-on opportunity to correct that.

My job is to teach clients how to move properly so they can apply that movement to real-life scenarios. Typically resistance training is the method we use for this education, but not everyone has the confidence or the ability to pickup a weight on Day 1. Focused stretching (that is, stretching with a definitive purpose, not just aimlessly reaching for your toes) can work wonders for a person’s confidence and physical autonomy.

Stretching helps us recover

One thing anti-stretchers and I agree on is that there are better ways to warm up before a workout or competition. Stretching demands that we be still and relaxed – not exactly the best formula for optimal performance. However, afterward, that’s exactly the state you want to be in.

As I’ve discussed in this column before, exercise is a form of stress. Your primitive brain doesn’t know that you’re squatting that weighted barbell on purpose; it thinks you’re straining under the burden of a boulder so the “fight or flight” response is triggered to help you survive this imaginary threat. Unfortunately those stress hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol) that assist us in times of trouble can literally destroy our bodies if left unchecked. This is why I insist that everyone I work with spends at least five minutes breathing deeply while holding a few basic yoga-inspired stretches. It’s the perfect way to end a productive workout.

Two stretches I swear by

The following stretches have a permanent spot in my own training programs.

Hold each stretch for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds, making sure not to get too aggressive. Find the initial point of tension and pause there. Take a few deep, slow belly breaths and then ease into a deeper range of motion if possible.

Piriformis Stretch. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor, knees up, heels close to your butt. Cross the leg that you want to stretch over the other leg, resting the ankle/shin near the knee in a figure four shape. For some, just getting into this position will be enough. To go even deeper, reach around the resting leg and pull it toward your chest until you feel the stretch in your glutes.

Child’s Pose with Side Bend. From an all-fours position, push your butt back to your heels as your arms extend overhead as if reaching for 12 o’clock. Your torso should be resting between your legs, your forehead resting on the floor. Walk your hands to the right until they’re at 2 o’clock. Take three slow, deep breaths, allowing all the tension in your neck and shoulders to melt away. Repeat on the left side, reaching for 10 o’clock.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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