Foam rolling and stretching provide different benefits for our muscles. Both activities help loosen up muscles but they do it in different ways.
Pros for stretching
- Stretching helps lengthen muscle fibers. Muscle fibers get short (tight) through a number of different mechanisms. Muscles can become shortened by keeping them in a shortened position for a prolonged period of time. For example, sitting at your desk for 8 hours a day causes your hip flexors and your hamstrings to become short. Stretching your hip flexors and you hamstrings every day after sitting is a really good plan because it will help prevent chronic problems such as low back pain. Muscles can also become chronically short through prolonged contraction. This is common in shoulders because of stressed. When you are stressed your shoulders try to become one with your ears and so you spend the day with your shoulders up around your ears. However many hours you do this at a time is how long your upper trapezius muscle has been contracting. So, when you notice you have been stressed and wearing your shoulders as ear-muffs, take a minute and stretch them out.
- It costs no money to stretch.
- You can stretch almost anywhere provided you aren’t too self-conscious.
- You can stretch the majority of the muscle of your body effectively and without help.
How long to hold a stretch?
I usually tell people to hold their stretch for 7 big breaths in and out. So, in seconds that is about 56 seconds. I like pairing my stretching with breathing instead of holding for a certain number of seconds. I like doing it this way because it ties your breathing to your stretching. It is really easy to forget to breath while stretching.
How to localize a stretch
This is hard to describe but I am going to do my best. I am going to try to explain the principle by using an example. Let’s pretend we want to stretch our Quadriceps area (commonly known as the quads). The quads represent four separate muscles. Within each of these muscles there are hundreds of muscle fibers that could have gotten tight without the rest of the muscle belly getting tight. To find the tight area we will start by getting into our normal quad stretch by bringing our heel to our buttocks on the same side and holding it with your hand.
If you can’t reach your ankle with your hand you can use a belt, rope, or scarf to help yourself out.
Once you have yourself in the basic stretch, then you are going to rotate your femur from side to side until you find “the good stretch”. As you loosen up the tightest fibers you will find you can go deeper into your stretch or that a new angle feels like “the good stretch”. You can find the basic stretches for most muscles easily with a google search. The hard part is making the stretch work for you. If the area is really tight you won’t have to be too specific or thoughtful with your stretch. But if you are just tight in one fiber group it will take some intension to really get the stretch you need.
Cautions for stretching
You can over stretch; this will feel like a pulled muscle the next day. If you really overdo it you can snap a muscle. Be gentle with your stretching and start slow, this isn’t a race or a competition. If you don’t feel like you know what you are doing, get some help. Yoga instructors are great professionals to get you started with your stretching. You can also ask your chiropractor, PT, or massage therapist. They are all experts on muscles and should be able to help you achieve your stretching goals.