5/22/2008

Should You Stretch Before You Exercise?

by Cary Raffle

You may not think that office work is physically demanding, but it takes a toll on your body!

Locked in Seated Position

Have you ever gotten up from your desk or after a long trip and felt like you were locked into seated position? Most of you spend many hours sitting. At a desk or table, hunched over a keyboard, leaning forward to see a computer screen, traveling on trains, busses and airplanes. For hours at a time, your hips are flexed, your shoulder muscles are tight, your glutes and middle/lower back muscles are all stretched out. Then, you want to come into the gym and workout or run or play ball outside. It's a setup for inefficient use of your muscles and potential injury.

A Set Up for Injury

Tight muscles can have limited range of motion and reduced blood flow, which leads to decreased work capacity

Muscle imbalances result as the wrong muscles are recruited to do the work. Here is one example: hunching over a keyboard tighten the muscles in the chest and front of the shoulders, the shoulder muscles and rotator cuff become overactive and tight, they roll forward an reduce the ability of the chest, arm and back muscles to work. It's a set you up for potential injuries such as rotator cuff problems. The same thing can happen at the neck, the hip, or any other area.

As muscles tighten they can spasm, scar tissue and adhesions form. As the muscle becomes less mobile and improperly balanced, joints don't move properly and can begin to degenerate - eventually leading to arthritis. Running with feet turned out and knees knocking, bench pressing with shoulders that are rounded in are a couple of examples of muscle imbalances that can lead to reduced performance and injury.


Before and After

It is important to get your muscles into balance before exercising to avoid risk of injury. But - and this is a big but - you have to be sure to stretch the right muscles. Just as some muscles get tight from sitting, the opposing muscles will stretch out. In some cases, they stretch to the point where they are also susceptible to injury. This often happens with some of the hamstring muscles. As the quadriceps and hip flexors tighten from sitting, some of the hamstring muscles lengthen. Yet many people who don't have tight hamstrings stretch them before exercising. After exercising, stretch the muscles that became tight during your workout, and get them back in balance again.

Does Stretching Weaken the Muscle?

One of my clients asked me to comment on an article that said not to stretch before exercise because research shows that stretching "weakens the muscle." I haven't seen that research.

Stretching sends a signal to the muscle to relax, so it might not generate as much force in the more relaxed state. However that is a very narrow view of how our bodies generate force.

Optimal force is produced by muscles working together in perfect harmony. For this to happen, we need to be in correct postural alignment, and the right muscles need to do the job. Often, a tight muscle will inhibit other muscles from doing their jobs. I have very clients at every level who - at various times - can't properly do certain exercises until their tight muscles have been released.