Stretching is not an optional part of your workout ...
At the end of each of my Camp Gladiator camps, I build in 5 to 10 minutes for stretching my campers. Most of them like it, but some don’t — some pack up and leave, even, because they feel like when the stretching begins the workout is over.
But stretching is super important for the human body, particularly for athletes (and my campers are definitely athletes!). When I was studying for my personal training certification I learned a lot about the role stretching plays in the skeletal-muscular system, and why it’s vital for recovery. I was already kind of a stretching evangelist thanks to taekwondo training, but I quickly became even more of one.
However, I recently watched a Physics Girl video on YouTube about stretching and realized that I didn’t know nearly as much about stretching as I realized — and bio-kinesiology candidate Michael Rowley shared one detail that I found absolutely fascinating:
You actually add length to the muscle fibers. You do that by adding sarcomeres, which are sort of the contractile unit producing the active contraction of muscles … So let’s recap: stretching can change the water content in your muscles, stem cell differentiation, how much you feel pain, that alpha gamma reflex loop from your muscles to your spinal cord, and the length of your muscle fibers.
I knew most of these things, particularly the bit about the “alpha gamma reflex loop” that causes muscle tightness and stiffness after a workout. That is the biggest reason I have my campers stretch — activating the Golgi tendon organ with a static stretch helps the muscles to relax, which both reduces soreness and decreases their chance of future injury.
I knew from experience that constant stretching, particularly active stretching (the kind you do while moving, like a stretch kick with a straight leg) can dramatically improve range of motion and mobility, but I had no idea that stretching was actually adding length to muscle fibers in order to do so. This is amazing, and easily explains why athletes who don’t stretch commonly have injuries like muscle strains and tears.
In fact, one of my campers told me he used to refuse to stretch period. For several years he went to CG camps, pushing his body to greater lengths without giving it the recovery and maintenance care that stretching provides. So it was no wonder that one Saturday morning he stepped down on a curb wrong (during the warm-up, mind you, not the actual workout) and tore his calf muscle.
He learned the hard way from that experience and is now one of my most dedicated stretchers, but it took a serious injury and nearly a year away from physical activity to teach him.
Don’t make the same mistake — if you are physically active, you absolutely must stretch regularly. Even if you’re not big into exercise, stretching regularly will still help maintain your mobility as you get older and protect your joints from injury.
So what are you waiting for? Go stretch!
(Not like that, though)