Stretching is one of the most overlooked facets of fitness. Many weightlifters choose to set aside mobility work and stretching and simply focus on lifting. This choice ultimately disadvantages you if you plan on lifting for long periods of time. By not stretching, you will not hit the absolute ceiling of your potential from training.
This is because stretching allows you to execute movements with better form, send nutrients to muscles more effectively, prevent injury over time, and improve circulation.
There have been a few studies to support these benefits of stretching. There has even been a study which showed that stretching alone has the ability to build muscle. This study was done on quail so it isn’t a major breakthrough but it did find that progressive stretch overload was able to build muscle directly despite no other training being done.
The study found that the muscle from birds being stretched was increased 318% after 28 days, this is a study done on birds so there is not a direct application to humans. But it does, however, overall support the concept of stretching having a positive impact on muscle.
Stretching also has been linked to improved blood flow. This study found that by doing daily stretches, there is increased vasodilation, angiogenesis, and more blood flow to muscles during exercise. Vasodilation is the widening of blood vessels and angiogenesis is the ability of the body to create new blood vessels.
Blood flow is a key aspect of training and by bettering the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to muscles you will be able to lift longer and build strength quicker. You always will have improved recovery since the muscles depend on the body delivering protein, nutrients, and other important compounds for them to function normally and repair fully after training.
When To Stretch
Stretching is important but when you stretch is also a factor in the benefits of stretching.
One of the most common times to stretch is right before training but studies have found that stretching immediately before your workout actually has a negative effect on muscle growth. This study was able to conclude that flexibility training done before resistance training reduced the overall results from the resistance training session. This reduction in results was slight but enough to at least refute the concept that stretching before training is the most optimal time to stretch.
This study contradicts the long held belief that you should always stretch before training. Research shows that in order to warm up muscles for training, it is better to do dynamic stretches and light lifts than it is to perform static stretches. After your workouts is a better time to do static stretching and will help in recovery.
Besides, after your workouts, stretching can be done at all other times of the day. A good routine to stick to could be 5-10 minutes of stretching in the morning, dynamic stretches before a workout, 20 minutes of stretching after a workout, and 10 minutes of stretching in the evening before bed.
If this is too often, simply 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes post workout will still yield the benefits from stretching for recovery and blood flow. Once you get into a routine of stretching it becomes habitual. See this post for how to find motivation for training and adhere to routines for results in the gym.
Stretching Between Sets
Another optimal time to stretch in addition to the mornings, post workout, and evenings, is in between sets. There is evidence that shows that doing static stretches in between sets for 30 seconds is able to improve the results from training.
This study was done in untrained individuals and found that hypertrophy increased overall in those who stretched in between sets. It concluded that interset stretching had a positive impact on muscle growth and at the least would not have a negative impact.
This study advised that when doing interset stretching, stretch the muscle being trained to the point of, but not beyond, where the stretching becomes uncomfortable. As to why interset stretching has a positive impact on hypertrophy while pre workout stretching has a negative effect is unclear but it may have to do with the muscles already being activated once they are trained and that the interset training is muscle specific.
Overall, stretching has a positive impact on building muscle. The best times to stretch are in the morning, after training, and in the evening. Interset stretching for 30 seconds on the trained muscle has also been shown to improve building muscle which is likely related to blood flow, oxygen being delivered to the muscle, and that the muscle is already warmed up and being trained.
For optimal stretching, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds because that’s been shown to be the most effective for increasing flexibility. Dynamic stretches and stretching with weights using progressive overload are also both effective methods for mobility and better blood flow to muscles. Stretching with weights may even be able to build muscle itself but that has not been able to be concluded definitively.
The benefits of stretching overall for building muscle are that it prevents injury, improves blood flow, helps delivery oxygen and nutrients to muscles, and improves form which help you lift with more strength and force.