We always hear that stretching is important. After all, our seated lifestyles stiffen us into perpetually-contracted postures. It's always good to stretch muscles that begin to lose their natural range of motion.
However, sometimes, people get addicted to stretching. As with most healthy things, stretching has a limit. In our work as massage therapists, we see just as many injuries and issues stemming from over-stretching as from stiffness and not stretching at all.
When we sleep, tiny microscopic collagen fibers form between muscle sheaths, connecting muscle bundles to other muscle bundles, and to connective tissue sheaths. This process of tiny micro fibers is natural and happens every single night. This is how our bodies heal tissue tears - by laying collagen fibers. These tiny fibers look like white fuzz under the microscope.
When we wake up in the morning, we naturally stretch our arms and legs out. The sensation of 'stretch' is the sensation of 'breaking' the fuzz.
If we do not stretch, due to injury or laziness, we keep the fuzz. The next night, the body builds more of it. And even more the next night. And so on. Until your range of motion is limited.
To maintain good range of motion, we need to stretch the fuzz on daily basis.
Many stretches involve strengthening, which is a great side effect of stretching.
When we stretch a group of muscles like the Hamstrings, we indirectly strengthen them. What happens when you first stretch your Hamstrings? They contract. The muscles engage to protect themselves to make sure you are not stretching too far. This is known as the Stretch Reflex - our bodies' natural self-protective mechanism.
The more you stretch, the more you tone the muscles you are stretching.
3. Aligning the Fibers
Stretching should be an essential part of any physical therapy or tissue rehab.
Stretching tells the brain which way to organize the direction of the muscle fibers. Without stretching, the fibers are usually build every which way, compromising the recovery process.
When Not to Stretch
There is really only one main reason not to stretch: Injury.
Stretching should be done ONLY on healthy muscle tissues. Any compromised muscle (pulled, torn, or otherwise injured) should be left alone for a coupe of days. This includes swelling and inflammation of muscle tissues. Stretching will only make it worse.
Once the inflammation is gone, and the healing process begins, gentle stretching (to align the fibers as mentioned above) can be done on a limited basis.