Stretch and Grow
How to access your muscle potential
Muscles, by their very nature, are designed to provide both strength and elasticity. Their main function is to assist, support, stabilize and facilitate movement of the skeleton, and whilst muscle tissue types vary, their essence lies in their elasticity and ability to contract and relax on demand. While strength and elasticity vary in individuals, both go hand in hand with a muscle’s energy potential. This is dependent on the parameters of contraction and relaxation within the muscle at the moment the command to move is given. Therefore, if a muscle is naturally in a state of contraction due to bad postural habits and stress (for example, the shoulders), then the force potential will be limited, as the potential range of movement of the contraction, from starting point to its limit, will be reduced. If, however, the muscle has a greater range of movement, established from increased elasticity, then the power or force potential will be increased as well.
So it would seem that while strengthening exercises increase the muscle tissue bulk, with the aim of increasing a muscle’s power potential, in order to be able to release this potential a muscle must have the capacity to lengthen at will. This is why stretching is so important in terms of sports training and performance.
The Rules of Stretching
- Focus – All muscle instruction originates in the brain. Therefore, the brain/mind should always be focused on the action. The action of stretching also involves focus on the breath (see point 3.) This means ideally, not holding a conversation while stretching, even if you are discussing your training programme.
- Awareness – You should know what instruction to give to your body. For example, a standing forward bend aims to stretch the back and the backs of the legs. So you should secure the base by activating the feet; pressing the heels into the ground. Use your hands to stabilize the posture if necessary (use an appropriate support- chair or block.) Then move the hips directly upwards so that you are, in essence, increasing the distance between one end of the leg (the heels) and the other (the head of the femur.) DO NOT PUSH INTO THE KNEES!
- Breath – Learn to use your breath. The inhalation is dynamic and relates to expansion in the cells and tissues. So inhale and feel the muscle fibres expand. The exhalation is passive and relates to release of energy and tension in the cells/tissues. So as you exhale feel the muscle fibres soften as the release excess energy and tension. As they soften you can increase the stretch.
As a muscle stretches it releases trapped toxins or waste products through the elongating process which acts like a press or a long squeeze. When you release from the stretch, fresh, oxygenated* blood will rush in to the muscle to nourish it, (*especially if you have been focusing on the breath!)
Not only does an active awareness in your stretching improve muscle health which is dependent on the ability to process energy efficiently, but you can also focus on reducing drag (scar tissue) in specific areas, where the muscle fibres are literally bound together as a result of natural reparation of tears and strains (adhesions.) So, in addition to taking precautionary measures in relation to possible injury by increasing flexibility, you can also reduce recovery time from injury.
In short, by stretching responsibly and conscientiously, your muscle health improves, your mental awareness of physical actions improves, your energy potential improves, your training and performance improves…
So what are you waiting for? Stretch…and Grow!