To stretch or not to stretch
This is a question that I get asked a lot in practice. Or, more commonly, I hear this question after I have prescribed some simple stretches, but my clients are making a desperate bid to avoid doing them – does stretching actually work?
The short answer is yes; the long answer depends on the context in which you are asking the question. For instance, whether stretching optimises performance, prevents injury or just makes you more comfortable in your posture?
Most clients that I see in a clinical setting have some form of postural strains, something that is inevitable as our bodies are incredible beings that change their shape depending on activity, mood and concentration.
Because of this, I like to refer to these patterns as each individual body telling me a story of what that particular person has done in their life. I am known for saying to my clients when I give them homework, ‘I’ll know if you haven’t done the exercises, your body doesn’t lie…’
And for the most part this is true, our bodies really do tell a story of what we do all day long and, for most people, that is sitting in a chair in a stuffy office, dreaming of their next holiday with some sun and fresh air.
With this comes a range of postural strains and there is one posture in particular with which most of us are familiar and that is the good old slump. Some people in the office will try their best to sit up straight and wage an all-out war on the slump, only to succumb to the pressure and ease of the slump after multiple hours on the computer fighting fatigue that gently sweeps over the office as the day goes on.
So in the context of the office setting and the question, ‘does stretching really work?’, my answer is still yes. Let me clear up some of the confusion that surrounds stretching, however.
Research on stretching before and after exercise to prevent injury is inconclusive and there is currently no strong evidence to support the fact that stretching before exercise decreases overall injury rates during exercise. There is some evidence, however, to suggest that it may reduce the incidence of musculotendinous injuries during exercise – though further research is needed in this area.
Let’s not confuse the context here in the office and in regards to postural strains and discomfort. Flexibility and range of motion contribute greatly to our sense of comfort, and ease and pain levels. So you don’t get away with not stretching too easily.
“Some people in the office will try their best to sit up straight and wage an all-out war on the slump, only to succumb to the pressure and ease of the slump after multiple hours on the computer fighting fatigue that gently sweeps over the office as the day goes on.
When you are static for the majority of the day, blood pools and stagnation occurs. This is usually why getting up from a chair and the first few steps out of bed can feel quite stiff.
For this same reason, it is important to get up regularly throughout the workday and spend a few minutes stretching to remind your body not to stay in one position for too long.
When you slump, your body shortens the muscles and nerves, causing compressive forces throughout the body. Over time this posture becomes habit, and the muscles and nerves become accustomed to a shortened length.
After this point, every time the body stretches, not only are the muscles getting irritated, but the nerves are irritated as well, causing stress and tension throughout the body.
When slumping you also put more strain on the digestive system, simply by squashing your abdomen, which hinders the movement of matter through the bowel.
Stretching lengthens the muscles and nerves, improving blood supply and waste removal. It also prevents and eases restrictions in the joint – it can even improve your digestion.
If you spend your day sitting at a desk, it is important to move around, so spend a few seconds regularly stretching to keep the body mobile and healthy, therefore avoiding any undue stress. A few minutes spent stretching throughout the day can be the difference between mild tension and severe headaches, between a smile and a frown.
Furthermore, if you try to combat the slump by sitting erect it will be uncomfortable, cause more strain patterns in the body, and you will simply succumb to the slump over time.
Most people feel good when stretching, yet we are all lazy beings that don’t always do what is best for our body – it’s all about making a habit.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the smart way to combat the slump with the following stretches. It is important to remember not to overstretch. Instead, stretch to the point where you feel a stretching sensation, not to the point of pain.
When our shoulders roll forward we shorten the pectorals (chest muscles). So our first stretch will always involve stretching the front of the chest.
Pectoral (pec) stretch
Have your arm at 90 degrees to the wall and stretch away from the wall. You should feel a stretch in your chest muscles. Hold for at least 20 seconds.
Static pec minor stretch
There are two parts to the muscle, the pec minor muscle. To stretch this muscle you do what was described above for the pec stretch, but with a straight arm. You should feel a stretch in a slightly different part of the chest muscles. Again hold for at least 20 seconds each side.
The second stretch focuses on the three parts of the hamstrings, which is located at the back of your thigh and can cause all sorts of strain patterns through the pelvis and spine when tight.
Stick your buttocks out and lean forward, maintaining a straight spine to get a stretch in the back of your legs. Rotate to the right and hold. Back to the middle, hold and then rotate to the left and hold again. This allows you to stretch all three hamstring muscles through a movement instead of a static stretch to only one aspect of the hamstring.
These two stretches should be performed at regular intervals, holding for 20 seconds each. Aim to do them twice before and after lunch; this will make a huge impact on your posture by opening up your chest, releasing neural tension in your arms and taking the strain off your neck.
The lower limb stretch addresses most muscles in the legs and takes the strain off the lower back and shoulders. Improving these two stretches is the key to a healthy flexible body without spending more than five minutes a day on stretching… moving freely, living freely, pain free and stress free!