From the time we take gym class in elementary to the time you get your first gym membership we are told to cool down with stretching after our exercise, but why? If it is so important for everyone then why is the stretching room at my gym always empty? Stretching after exercising has been said to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (otherwise known as DOMS), help prevent future injuries, strengthen the muscles, lengthen the muscles, make you look leaner and more flexible (Andersen). Does stretching actually accomplish all of these things? Simply put the answer is no, but it can benefit you if you know the purpose behind your stretch (Andersen).
For a long time it was believed that stretching would reduce the amount of muscle soreness you would feel the next day after exercising (Page). The idea behind this was that you would get the blood flowing to the muscle you chose to stretch and that it would remove lactic acid from your muscle, thus reducing the soreness in the muscle the next day (Andersen). However, we now know that lactic acid does not correlate with the amount of pain that we have in our muscles.
So what can stretching do for us? It helps to lengthen the muscle (Page). The reason why you would want to lengthen your muscle is for one that it improves flexibility, those with more flexibility have longer muscles that those who have a limited range of motion(Page). If you’re not planning on becoming a dancer or gymnast you might wonder why you should care about how flexible you are. When you workout you create micro-tears in your muscles, and this is what produces that sore feeling you have the next day, those micro-tears heal and you now have a stronger muscle than you had before, and you continuously need to provide new stimulus (or more weight) in order to keep producing more micro-tears in your muscle and thus continuously making a stronger muscle (Karp 2002). Every time you create micro-tears your muscle shortens a little in order to repair that tear ( which also helps give that full looking muscle) , and over time this can reduce your range of motion from what you originally had ( Karp 2002, Page). So while you may not notice in a week's time, over months and even years without stretching you will be shortening your muscles and reducing your range of motion which can cause issues for your quality of life (Page).
The take away message from this is that stretching is important to maintain your range of motion or to even increase your range of motion, but it will not cure DOMS (Andersen, Page). Range of motion is often overlooked and is something that we should all take care of. One day reaching above your head to get a can of soup from the top shelf won’t be an easy task. Take care of your muscles now, incorporate some stretches into your routine and you will thank yourself in future years.
By: Jessica Carter