More thoughts on stretching
We get a lot of interest in our posts on stretching. Seems like this is a pretty hot subject and there is a lot of debate as to whether it is injury preventative or not. Are you trying to physically lengthen the muscle or are you trying to merely bring it to its physiological limit? There’s a big difference in what you need to do to accomplish each of these goals. Lets take a look at each, but 1st we need to understand a little about muscles and muscle physiology.
Muscles are composed of small individual units called sarcomeres. Inside of these “sarcomeres” there are interdigitating fibers of actin and myosin (proteins) which interact with one another like a ratchet when a muscle contracts. Sarcomeres can be of various lengths, depending on the muscle, and are linked and together from one end of the muscle to the other. When a muscle contracts concentrically (the muscle shortening while contracting) the ends of the sarcomere (called Z lines or Z discs) are drawn together, shortening the muscle fiber over all (see the picture above).
Signals are sent from the brain (actually the precentral gyrus of the cerebral cortex areas 4, 4s and 6) down the corticospinal tract to the spinal cord to synapse on motor neurons there. These motor neurons (alpha motor neurons) then travel through peripheral nerves to the muscles to cause them to contract (see picture above).
The resting length of the muscle is dependent upon two factors:
The physical length of the muscle
2. The “tone” of the muscle in question.
The physical length of the muscle is determined by the length of the sarcomeres and the number of them in the muscle. The “tone” of the muscle determined by an interplay of neurological factors and the feedback loops between the sensory (afferent) receptors in the muscle (Ia afferents, muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs etc.), relays in the cerebellum and basal ganglia as well as input from the cerebral cortex.
If you’re trying to “physically lengthen” a muscle, then you will need to actually add sarcomeres to the muscle. Research shows that in order to do this with static stretching it must be done 20 to 30 minutes per day per muscle.
If you were trying to “bring a muscle to its physiological limit” there are many stretching methods to accomplish this. Pick your favorite whether it be a static stretch, contract/ relax, post isometric relaxation etc. and you’ll probably be able to find a paper to support your position.
Remember with both not to ignore neurological reflexes (see above). Muscle spindle loops are designed to provide feedback to the central nervous system about muscle length and tension. Generally speaking, slow stretch activates the Ia afferent loop which causes causes physiological contraction of the muscle (this is one of the reasons you do not want to do slow, steady stretch on a muscle in spasm). This “contraction” can be fatigued overtime, causing the muscle to be lengthened to it’s physiological limit. Do this for an extended period of time (20-30 mins per day) and you will physically add sarcomeres to the muscle.
Next time you are stretching, or you were having a client/patient stretch, think about what it is that you’re actually trying to accomplish because there is a difference.
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