How to Build Muscle: the Importance of Stretching
If you are looking to smash your personal training goals in 2018, you are probably aware of the importance of tailoring your training regime, nutrition plan and recovery time to ensure that you are optimizing muscle growth and fitness improvement However, a fourth element of any fitness plan should be considered if you are looking to make this year your fittest one yet: focus on your flexibility.
Why you should focus on flexibility
Flexibility is a key indicator of fitness, yet it is often overlooked in many training regimes. This is despite the fact that flexibility increases looseness in the body as well as increasing muscle-tone. If you want to see significant results in your training this year, it is important to incorporate a regular stretching routine into your fitness plan.
You are probably asking, “will stretching really make me fitter?” and the answer is YES! Stretching will improve your strength and physique in many ways including by:
facilitating muscle growth and recovery;
increasing flexibility allowing you access to a fuller range of motion in your exercises, meaning you can train harder and smarter;
increasing flexibility and stability in the joints, reducing risk of injury in training;
increasing circulation which will allow more oxygen and glycogen to move around your muscles; and
increasing speed, power and coordination.
How being flexible assists in building muscle
To understand the benefits of stretching for improving fitness and physique, it is important to understand how stretching works and what types of stretching cause certain effects on your muscles.
All muscles are enclosed in a layer of fascia, a kind of connective tissue, which holds your muscles in place and separates each muscle from another so that the muscles can work independently, by providing a lubricated surface for muscles to move against each other.
The tighter the fascia is netted around your muscles, the more restricted your muscles are in both how large they can grow and their range of movement. Stretching your muscles properly and adequately to increase flexibility, forces the fascia to stretch and expand over time, which in turn allows your muscles to grow larger as you train them by creating more room around them. Stretching after a workout is the most beneficial time to stretch, because the muscles are loaded with blood and are already putting pressure on the fascia, so stretching the muscles when they are warm will achieve maximum stretching of the fascia.
The most beneficial types of stretching
Different types of stretching can be incorporated into your workout routine to provide different benefits. Below we set out the most beneficial types of stretching and when you should incorporate each into your routine.
Before you work out
Dynamic stretching uses gentle movement to move different body parts through their range of motion, loosening and warming up the muscles at the same time as improving muscle function. This is the best type of stretching to undertake at the start of a training session, for example by swinging the arms and legs to gradually increase the range of motion and shake out any muscle stiffness. Squats, lunges and rotating the limbs are also effective. Dynamic stretching has been found to provide increased performance for sprinters and athletes undertaking high intensity training. Unlike more static forms of stretching, which involves holding a lengthening stretch for a period of time, dynamic stretching warms the muscles but does not fatigue them, so this form of stretching will not reduce your performance.
Once your are warmed up
Isometric stretching involves loading muscle groups with resistance through isometric contractions of stretched muscles. Isometric stretching is believed to assist in hypertrophy as well as increasing mobility as the muscles are loaded whilst stretching.
If you are weight training, it is recommended that once you have completed training a particular muscle or muscle group in each session, you incorporate a set of isometric stretching that works that muscle group to achieve maximum stretching and active recovery of that muscle. As mentioned above, when your muscles are loaded with blood, this is the best time to stretch the muscles to try and release the tightness of the fascia around that muscle and allow it to grow. An example of this would be adding weighted chest flys at the end of a chest session as the muscles are loaded when stretched all the way out during a fly.
After a workout
Active Stretching involves holding a position without any resistance other than that involved in holding the position. Active stretching requires a group of muscles to tense, in order for the opposing muscle group to stretch. It works to stretch the muscles because the tension in one muscle group when held requires the opposing muscle group to relax and elongate. Active stretches should be held for between 15 to 30 seconds.
Passive or relaxed stretching requires the body to remain completely passive while an outside force is exerted on it, for example by a partner pushing your body into a form of stretch, or by allowing gravity or your bodyweight to stretch the muscles out.
The benefits of yoga to improve strength training
Yoga and weight training provide the body with similar benefits including increased fitness, stress reduction, weight loss, as well as building toned muscles and physique improvement. Incorporating yoga into your training regime, will facilitate strengthening and stretching of the muscles, which weight and cardio training generally do not do alone.
Regularly practicing yoga to complement your weight training, balances out the shortening of muscles that can occur with frequent heavy training, and strengthens and stabilises joints. Improving range of motion through stretching, in yoga benefits training by minimizing the risk of injury which can occur as a result of tight muscles reducing joint functionality. Yoga also improves posture over time which facilitates correct technique in other aspects of training and the more accurate your posture, the better your training results.
When to stretch and how often
Apart from dynamic stretching which is most beneficial before you work out, the best time to stretch is post-workout, as your muscles are fully warmed. Pre-workout stretching generally reduces the ability of your muscles to perform at their best during the workout as it can create fatigue in the muscles, however stretching after a session, will increase range of motion, strength and agility, and assist in faster muscle recovery.
Stretching allows the body to achieve more during and after a workout by assisting in movement, recovery and strength building. It is best to stretch after every workout to optimize the increase in flexibility that warm muscles will allow, and to ensure that you are optimizing space in the body for growth and recovery post workout.
Incorporating at least one stretching based active recovery session each week through yoga, is a fantastic way to improve the benefits that flexibility will bring to your training to ensure you smash through your training goals this year!