Muscles are an essential organ

24 Jan

Stretching increases your joint range of motion, warms up your muscles, and aids in muscle recovery.   There are two different types of flexibility, static flexibility and dynamic flexibility.  Static Flexibility is the range of motion of a joint with very slow, controlled movement. Dynamic Flexibility is the range of motion of a joint with fast, explosive movement.  Your static flexibility is probably higher than your dynamic flexibility (perhaps you can do the splits, but can you jump and drop into the splits?), but dynamic flexibility is more important for most athletic activity.

So what limits flexibility and how do we become more flexible?  The mechanical nature of our joints and ligaments determine our ultimate range of motion, but our working flexibility is limited by our brain!  Our brains instinctually cause our muscles to tighten to limit our range of motion to prevent injury.  Stretching exercises help build strength at extreme joint angles and “teach” our brains that this range of motion is safe; it does not need to tighten our muscles to prevent it.

There are several different methods of stretching we should know about:

  • Dynamic Stretching: Move a joint back and forth through its full range of motion.  We recommend dynamic stretching as a warm up before any activity.  Dynamic stretching is also crucial for increasing your dynamic flexibility.
  • Static Stretching: Relax and try to move a joint past its current range of motion.  We like using these stretches to warm up tight muscles or prevent an injured muscle from losing range of motion.
  • PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) Stretching: Similar to static stretching, but you actively flex your muscles against the stretch for several seconds, relax, and then find you are able to move the joint a little further.  PNF stretching is scientifically proven to be one of the most effective ways for increasing static flexibility.
  • Ballistic Stretching: Move a joint past its working range of motion quickly and explosively.  Done incorrectly, these will cause injury and reduce your flexibility (your brain will cause the muscles to tighten to fight the stretch and prevent further injury).  Done correctly, these are really just a more intense dynamic stretch.  These should only be done by athletes who are very tuned to their bodies and know precisely how hard to push the motion.

The Periodic Table of Stretching Exercises lists over 50 different stretches. The table is arranged by muscle group horizontally. There are stretching exercises for your arms, chest, glutes, quads, hamstrings, groin, shoulders, back and core.  There are also compound full body stretches and many dynamic warm up stretches.

The stretching exercises are arranged vertically by difficulty. At the top are the simplest stretches that are the easiest to learn and perform. As you move further down the table, the stretches become increasingly difficult, requiring more flexibility and/or coordination to perform.

Click on any illustration for a quick video demonstration of that stretch. We hope you enjoy this infograph and spend some time learning these flexibility exercises. We spent many hours putting this together, so please share it! You might also enjoy the Periodic Table of Bodyweight Exercises, the Periodic Table of Suspension (TRX) Exercises, the Periodic Table of Dumbbell Exercises, the Periodic Table of Kettlebell Exercises, the Periodic Table of Exercise Ball Exercises, the Periodic Table of Resistance Band Exercises, and the Periodic Table of Barbell Exercises.

We stretch for lots of reasons: Because it feels good, because it’s part of our pre-workout routine, because a muscle is stiff and we think stretching will fix it. But most of what we know about stretching—and thus the ways we use it—are based on wishful thinking and outdated science. We’re stretching for all the wrong reasons.

Stretching is steeped in tradition and myth. Like targeted fat-busting, it makes for catchy headlines and glib locker-room advice, but the science doesn’t back up the assumptions that athletes embrace.

In many cases, stretching does the opposite of what it’s promoted for. You already know that it doesn’t prevent injuries. It also doesn’t cure muscle soreness; in fact, aggressive stretching can cause muscle soreness. And pre-workout stretches, far from preparing you to work out, actually rob you of strength. Here’s the truth behind some of those persistent myths:

Stretching Doesn’t Cure Muscle Soreness

I often hear athletes asking each other, “Do you know a good stretch for this muscle?” Said before or during a workout, it’s almost always because the person has a sore muscle and is looking for a way to fix it. This almost makes sense: It feels good to stretch a sore muscle. Or at least it feels like you’re doing something.

But stretching doesn’t provide any lasting pain relief (and it doesn’t prevent soreness either).The sad truth about muscle soreness is you can’t really do anything to make it go away; muscle fibers are damaged, and they just need time to heal.

In fact, stretching itself can damage muscle fibers—you’re just tearing them by stretching them instead of by contracting them. If you want to stop feeling sore, aggressive stretching is the last thing you’d want to do.

Because muscle pulls (strains) feel similar to soreness, people often have the same reaction, wanting to stretch the pulled muscle. Here it’s an even worse idea: the pulled muscle needs to knit back together, and stretching sabotages that process.

Stretching Robs You of Strength in the Short Term (But Is Good for You in the Long Term)

If you stretch as part of your pre-workout warmup, when it comes time to lift that weight or make that sudden cutting move, you’ll be weaker than if you didn’t stretch. The effect lasts for minutes, possibly as long as half an hour.

Most of the studies that tested that idea used simple, measurable exercises, like a jump test. If you jump after stretching, you won’t be able to jump as high as if you did the jump test without stretching first. The studies usually had people stretch aggressively for several minutes. Exactly how this applies to real world workouts is hard to say: a review published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that short, gentle stretches sometimes seem to help performance.

This, in part, is why “dynamic stretching” is popular these days. Instead of working on a single stretch for 30 seconds or more, you’ll take your body through an exaggerated version of the normal range of motion. Maybe this means jogging with high knees and butt kicks, or crawling on the ground spiderman-style. But calling this a stretch may represent misplaced focus: maybe spending that same time doing ordinary cardio or strength exercises would have the same effect. After all, the key features of a warmup are to get blood flowing, literally warm up your muscle tissue, and get your cells to ramp up their calorie-burning machinery (which takes several minutes to really get going).

And yet, there is a paradox: people who stretch routinely will end up stronger than people who don’t. They’re decreasing their strength temporarily, but building it in the long term. Why? Probably because of the muscle damage we discussed earlier. If weightlifting and stretching can both cause muscle damage, they should both cause the muscles to repair themselves stronger than they started. Stretching does cause hypertrophy—muscle growth—and this seems to explain why people who stretch end up stronger over time.

Stretching Doesn’t Lengthen Your Muscles

Stretch a muscle and it gets longer, right? This is how we assume stretching works, but it turns out that might not be true—which means a lot of ideas about why we should stretch are in question.

One of the leading theories is that stretching doesn’t lengthen your muscles; it just changes your perception of pain, so that when the muscle gets stretched, you don’t mind as much. This could explain why stretching doesn’t seem to prevent injury: you haven’t changed anything about the way your joints or muscles move.

It may be possible to lengthen muscles, but not purely through stretching. If you contract a muscle while it’s lengthening (eccentric exercise), that seems to be the key to making muscles longer. It makes sense that some of the most flexible athletes—ballerinas and yogis, for example—do exactly this type of exercise hundreds of times a workout.

When to Stretch (and When Not to)

Now that we know the truth about stretching, a different set of prescriptions for stretching emerges:

  • If you need strength in a workout (because you’re lifting weights, or sprinting, or playing a sport that requires sudden bursts of power), skip the static stretches beforehand. Dynamic stretches make a fine replacement, but you could experiment with skipping the stretching entirely.
  • If you like to stretch after a workout or on your off days, that probably neither helps nor hurts. You may increase your flexibility, and maybe your strength. (You could also stretch before a workout if you don’t care how your strength in the workout is affected.)
  • If you’re sore or have a pulled muscle, stop stretching, or keep it very gentle. A little light cardio, such as walking, will bring a similar temporary relief from soreness without damaging more muscle fibers.
  • If you want to build flexibility in the long term, stretching helps but eccentric exercise is probably a better approach: contracting while stretching.

You may look a little weird if you’re the only person in your gym who doesn’t stretch before exercise, and prefers to foam roll a sore muscle rather than stretch it out, but your muscles will thank you for it.

Why Your Muscles Get Sore (and What You Can Do About It)

What Soreness Is

That next-day soreness isn’t from lactic acid or any toxins produced during exercise. Think about it: if it were, the soreness would start at the gym and resolve over time. Instead, it’s called delayed-onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) because it begins several hours afterward, and peaks (on average) around two days after exercise.

Exactly how DOMS develops isn’t as well understood as you’d think, but exercise scientists agree that people who are experiencing soreness are also experiencing muscle damage and rebuilding. Proteins leave the injured cells while fluid and white blood cells rush to the rescue. As time goes on, the muscle cells are patched up and new cells are born, and all of them get stuffed with contractile proteins. Some or all of this response is probably involved in making us sore.

What Causes It

Almost any kind of hard exercise can result in soreness, especially if the exercises are new to you. We don’t know why, but somebody who’s in great shape can still be sore after an unusual workout (say, trying a new sport) and somebody who is used to their routine may avoid soreness even if their workouts are killer.

Some types of exercise are more likely to trigger it, though. The most notorious are eccentric exercises, ones where a muscle has to contract as it’s lengthening. Think about the part of a bicep curl where you’re lowering the weight; that’s a textbook example of eccentric exercise, since the bicep is working (to slow the weight down) as it is lengthening. Another classic is downhill running, or walking down stairs. (Pro tip: if you’re running stadium or skyscraper stairs for the first time, run up but look for an elevator to take back down.)

Stretching can also cause soreness, especially if the stretching is extreme. That’s probably because the stretching damages muscle fibers. Static stretching and ballistic (bouncing) stretching can both do that damage. If you want to improve flexibility without pain, gentle static stretching or dynamic stretching is probably a better bet.

When It’s a Good Thing

Soreness correlates pretty well with muscle growth, repair, and recovery, so in a sense it’s a sign of good things happening. If you live the gym rat life, or the active outdoor life, you’re going to be sore at least some of the time and it’s really OK.

You don’t want to be sore all of the time, or severely sore, but more about that below.

It’s also okay to not be sore. It’s possible to build muscle without soreness, or to stop being sore after you’ve gotten used to a particular workout routine. That doesn’t mean the routine isn’t working.

When It’s a Bad Thing

DOMS’s dirty secret is that it comes with a loss of strength. It’s not just that you don’t feel like exercising. When you’re sore, your muscles can’t produce as much force. That weakness may last longer than the soreness, for days or even, in severe cases, weeks. If you’re sore all the time, you may be sabotaging your own workout efforts because you’re not working as hard as you could.

Since soreness and muscle damage go hand-in-hand, severe muscle damage that threatens your health, called rhabdomyolysis, will show up as severe soreness. If you ever wake up so sore you can barely move, and your muscles are swollen, and you’re peeing brown, get to a hospital right away. Rhabdo can happen to athletes who engage in very long and tough workouts (or 100-mile endurance runs), feel like the tougher the workout the better, and are just mentally determined enough and just dumb enough to not stop when a workout is getting out of hand. (It can also happen to athletes who trust their coaches, when their coaches have those same qualities.) If this paragraph is terrifying you, and you’re wondering whether your half-hour at the gym this afternoon might put you into rhabdo, relax. You’re not in the at-risk group.

What You Can (and Can’t) Do About It

When you’re sore, you want to do something about it, right? Sadly, most of the things people do to try to relieve soreness don’t usually help.

  • Stretching: If it feels good, then fine: stretch a little. But it won’t make you feel better for the rest of the day, and intense stretching isn’t any better than gentle stretching. Pre- and post-workout stretching won’t prevent soreness either.
  • Ice: Ice baths and ice massage don’t counteract soreness, although the cold and numbness may take your mind off the pain.
  • Compression garments: Wearing them after exercise might actually help if they’re fitted correctly: snug but not super tight.
  • Light exercise, like going for an easy jog, is another thing that will make you feel better temporarily, but isn’t going to speed your recovery in any real way.
  • Massage may help, but it’s not clear what kind of massage is best or when you should have it. While we wait for more science to roll in, use it if it feels good.
  • Ibuprofen reduces inflammation, and large amounts can make you less sore. But ibuprofen also interferes with muscle growth, so popping “Vitamin I” probably isn’t worth it. (Low doses won’t do any damage, but they also aren’t likely to help with pain either.)
  • Arnica (sold as under-the-tongue homeopathic pills with no actual arnica content, or as a gel) just doesn’t work. Don’t fall for it.

Most of the time, your best bet is to just wait. It’s okay to go to your next workout, but take it easy. As long as you don’t make it worse, the soreness will subside in a few days. Sleeping and eating well are never a bad idea, and the techniques above are fine to use if they make you feel better. So yes, maybe you overdid it just a little. But you can also be proud that you’re getting stronger.

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