Bodybuilders fail to understand the significance of full body flexibility. Most bodybuilders put forth most of their effort in weight training, dieting, and taking the right bodybuilding supplements. Yes, I'm well aware that you don't get points in physique competition for the range of motion in your joints, but if you have good flexibility (extreme ranges of flexibility are not necessary in most sports and can actually be detrimental in a few sports), you'd be surprised at how much better a bodybuilder you could be!
Say what? That's right — having better flexibility can make you a better bodybuilder. If bodybuilders appreciated this, they wouldn't be so lackadaisical when it comes to their stretching programs. Better muscle and connective tissue flexibility will help you gain through a lessening of your chances of suffering injuries by increasing your exercise range of motion.
My aim in this article is to explain why you should not ignore a stretching program and also to show you how a proper stretching program can help you to achieve greater size. In reality, getting bigger is more important to bodybuilders than injury prevention and increasing flexibility just for the purpose of being more limber, let's see how stretching can be the key to more muscle growth.
Mechanical activity plays a fundamental role in maintaining muscle size. This is obvious when one observes a muscle that has been prevented from its normal function for any period of time. A limb in a cast, for example, begins experiencing disuse atrophy with in 10-14 days, and its size decreases measurably in the following weeks.
There is another major factor involved in the regulation of muscle size and hypertrophy: tension. Studies on developing embryos show that passive stretch plays an important role in muscular development. The rapid elongation of bones keeps the muscles under constant tension, which has been shown to increase the length and the number of the contractile protein elements of the cells called myofibrils. This directly contributes to cell growth and hypertrophy. Myofibrils, you will recall, are the elements that thicken in response to the tension of heavy weight training, creating increased size and strength.
A 10-12% passive stretch on a muscle has also been shown to have some other very interesting effects. Stretching stimulates the activity of anabolic biochemical events such as increased glucose transport, increased intracellular protein synthesis, increased cellular amino acid uptake and a positive nitrogen balance. If this research applies to bodybuilding, these are the same responses that are desired from your training sessions and you don't even have to sweat!
Additionally, there is a 60-70% increase of the muscle cell sodium pump, which helps the muscle contract more efficiently. While exact times were not available, it appeared that some of these phenomena continued in effect for hours after the laboratory stretching procedure stopped. On rest days or during layoffs stretching may not only minimize atrophy but in itself might be a direct stimulus to muscular growth, and may at least help keep the cells metabolically active and in a positive nitrogen balance. Stretching is also an excellent complement to high-intensity training.
Stretching may influence growth on other dimensions. It can reprogram the resting length of a muscle and change its resting tone in a fashion that makes it more relaxed. Muscles should be hard only when contracted. If a muscle is hypertonic at rest, energy that could be more properly used for growth and recuperation is being wasted. Tendons and connective tissue are also stressed needlessly. Similarly, a muscle can be permeated with blood only while in the relaxed state since a contraction mechanically cuts off blood flow.
Therefore, hypertonic muscles have a less than optimum supply of oxygen, hormones and nutrients as well as a decreased capacity for the removal of metabolic waste, which again hampers recuperation and growth. Hypertonic muscles are more prone to developing focal areas of spasm called trigger points. These trigger points, commonly located in the trapezius, besides being painful, can diminish the strength of the entire muscle and can thereby diminish growth-stimulating workout intensity. After a stretching session there is a temporary increase in blood flow to the area, which not only aids in healing, growth and recuperation but may also diminish delayed muscle soreness.
Bodybuilders who become bigger and stronger and who then train more intensely need to become more disciplined with their stretching procedures. It is important to note that improper stretching can irritate the muscle, making it more hypertonic and susceptible to spasm or injury. Methods of stretching are not all equally advantageous. Passive stretching involves using a partner to help you go beyond the range of motion that you are able to voluntarily perform alone, whereas dynamic stretching involves reaching motion end points without assistance. Static stretching may be performed either passively or dynamically where the end point or position of maximal stretch is held for 15-30 seconds followed by a short period of relaxation. All these methods when performed slowly and gradually with normal breathing and no pain are useful methods of placing tension on the muscles and reprogramming their resting length. Posing also qualifies as a method of placing tension on and stretching the muscles. For example, as the biceps is contracted, the opposing muscle or antagonist, in this case the triceps, is stretched. Ballistic stretching involves bouncing or otherwise using motion to propel a limb just beyond its normal range of motion. This method is not recommended since uncontrolled momentum may stress joint connective tissue or place such a rapid stretch on the muscle that it becomes irritated and more hypertonic.
Possibly the most appropriate method of stretching for heavily muscled athletes such as bodybuilders and powerlifters is proprioceptive neurouscular facilitation or PNF stretching. Proprioception has to do with the interpretation of a stimulus from a peripheral area such as a joint or muscle. A special type of muscle cell called a muscle spindle monitors tensions within the muscle and sends this information to the brain. If a muscle is stretched to the point of discomfort, the muscle spindle will send that message to the brain. The brain will then cause that muscle to contract to some degree to prevent it from being torn or otherwise injured.
This is why improper stretching can make a muscle more hypertonic. With PNF stretching, once the point of maximum stretch has been reached, the athlete voluntarily contracts that muscle isometrically or resists his partner for 10 seconds in the stretched position, which allows the muscle spindle to relax. At that point the muscle is stretched further, again to its end point where the spindle would begin to fire, when another isometric contraction is performed. This procedure is repeated 3-4 times. Because you are reprogramming the setpoint at which the muscle spindle fires, the immediate gains in flexibility with PNF stretching are usually quite dramatic.
This technique is most easily performed with a partner, but you can use stationary objects to resist against. PNF stretching is especially effective for the hamstrings, quadriceps, thigh adductors, chest and shoulders, but with a little creativity the PNF principle can' work for almost any muscle.
The hamstrings should not be stretched in the "hurdler stretch" position, where one leg is straight and the other is bent with the heel near the buttocks. Although frequently used, this position places tremendous stress on the inside of the bent knee and can be dangerous. A better position would be to turn the bent leg in with the heel near the groin.
A consistent stretching program has too many benefits for the bodybuilder to be ignored. It can increase range of motion for more complete muscular contractions, decrease the risk of injury, speed recuperation, reduce post-workout soreness and may contribute indirectly as well as directly to the anabolic events responsible for muscular growth. Remember to begin your program slowly and allow your body to adapt to this new form of stress.
Stretching could be the missing link to consistent progress and muscular gains that you've been looking for.
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