Most strength athletes believe that muscles are simply bundles of fibrous tissue that have the ability to contract, produce movement, generate force and stabilize body parts. This is why many will invest heavily in the best whey protein shake money can buy and stock the cupboards full of creatine monohydrate, but why too often stretching isn't a top priority for most people on a strength-based programme. But the reality is muscles are far more intricate than this and recent studies show stretching and mobility work could help to increase the hypertrophic response to training and therefore, ultimately, the amount of muscle you are able to build. So grab your foam roller, roll out the yoga mat and have a read of this…
1) Stretching stimulates
In a study by the US National Strength and Conditioning Association called ‘Maximizing Hypertrophy: Possible Contribution of Stretching in the Inter-Set Rest Period’, researchers proposed that stretching between heavy sets adds to the total amount of time the muscle is in tension, enhancing the neuro-mechanical and metabolic stimuli. It says that proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is the best form to bring about the desired tension in the muscles. This is where you isometrically contract the muscles (they are in tension but not lengthening or shortening) for 6 seconds, and then relax and enter into a stretch. Traditionally used by physical therapists, this method of stretching is now being used by strength athletes, bodybuilders and those wanting to increase muscle mass. What's more, it can be used to train any muscle group. One example would be performing a heavy set of lat pull-downs to engage the muscles of the back and then immediately performing a latissimus dorsi stretch such as grabbing a fixed object with both hands at about shoulder level, keeping the arms straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, and squatting down, lowering the body and keeping your arms straight to stretch the muscles of the back.
2) Stretching gives muscles room to grow
All muscles are surrounded by a layer of dense, fibrous connective tissue known as a fascia. Its job is to protect the muscles and allow them to maintain their position in the body, but experts have theorised that fascia could actually hinder muscle growth since it effectively reduces the amount of ‘room’ they have to grow. One reason the calf muscles (gastrocnemius) are quite difficult to grow is that the fascia in the calf muscles is extremely dense thanks to the extreme weight load the calves take every day. However, after a heavy training session the muscles are fully ‘pumped’ and already pushing against the fascia, so stretching at that point could lead to expansion of the fascia and growth of the muscles. If you’re having problems building calf muscle, try performing 12 calf raises, then going into an isometric hold (where the muscle is under tension but not expanding or contracting) before finishing off with a deep calf stretch for six seconds. This coupled with applying pressure on a foam roller to the back of the legs (starting at the calves and finishing at the glutes) can loosen any tight fascia and essentially unlock muscle growth.
3) Stretching increases blood flow
Stretching has long been used as a means of ‘warming up’ and increasing blood flow to the working muscles. Many experts believe stretching following a workout could greatly increase the delivery of essential nutrients to the muscles while decreasing the build-up of lactic acid following a heavy training session. This means it could aid nutrient delivery, support recovery and prevents delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The same theory applies to using a foam roller post training, to “massage” out lactic acid that would have accumulated in the muscles during a heavy session.