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The Real Purpose of Stretching Is Not What You Think

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How’s your flexibility? Are you as limber as your dog or cat, or is your body and joints as inflexible as those 2 x 4s they used to frame your house? If you’re like most people in the world, you’re literally stiff as a board, and it’s going to take some regular and consistent work to change that.

But why? Why should you stretch? What purpose does it serve? And does it do anything other than just give you the ability to touch your toes?

The Real Purpose of Stretching

When you think about flexibility or mobility, what do you think about? Let me guess, stretching? And what is it that you stretch? Muscles, right? So if you’re like most, you think flexibility is about muscles and making them longer. Well, that is true, but it’s only part of the story.

The other part is about joints, because skeletal muscles don’t actually serve a functional purpose without their action across joints. A joint, in order to do the job that it was intended to do, needs two things: full range of motion, and something to enable it to move. Take a mousetrap, for instance. The joint is the hinge. For it to work correctly, it needs the ability to fully open, and it needs the spring attached to it to snap it shut.

In your body, your bones form the joint, and your muscles provide the force to open and close it. Take a look at the inside of your elbow and your bicep. When your bicep muscle shortens, it pulls your lower arm closer to your upper arm, closing the elbow joint.

The complex pattern of muscles firing to stabilize, open, and close various joints in multiple combinations and with perfect timing is what enables you to generate force and power. This action is what gives you the ability to do all the things you do — sit, stand, crawl, walk, run, jump, skip, lunge, hop, lift, squat, bend, push, pull, twist, etc, and is especially important around the hip joint, the most powerful joint in your body, across which many of your largest and strongest muscles span.

The greater your range of motion (up until a point) across a joint, the greater your body’s ability to generate power and force. Tight, inflexible muscles restrict the ability of the joint to fully open and close, limiting both your functional capacity and ability to generate force and power. Think about that mousetrap again. If the spring you use is too tight, it won’t allow the trap to be fully opened, which won’t give the mouse the space to enter the trap, rendering it completely useless.

How to Regain Your Lost Power

When you are born and through at least the first four to five years of your life, you have full range of motion at all your joints. That means your joints move the amount they were designed to move, and your muscles have full capacity and range to generate power.

But as you get older, you start doing things like prolonged sitting with poor posture, you might get injured, and you might not be spending time stretching. Your muscles shorten and tighten, as do your ligaments and tendons, and what was once a full range of motion joint, gets limited by five to ten degrees.

If it’s not addressed, that joint range of motion gets reduced even more, maybe by fifteen to twenty degrees, and then more again. With each smaller degree of rotation, that muscle/joint combination becomes less capable of operating the way it was designed, and less able to generate force and power, which makes your body less capable of doing what it’s supposed to be able to do at that joint.

And since you still call upon your body to do things that you always have, it means other parts of your body (joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons) have to compensate for the incapacity at that joint. Your body is phenomenal in it’s ability to do this, but it leads to all sorts of issues and compensations that ultimately cause pain, discomfort, and lowered functional capacity.

Ready to Stretch Now?

So, why stretch? It’s really about the mobility of your joints and creating a full capacity to move and to generate force and power. And to make your body as functionally capable as possible for as long as possible in your life. Plus it feels great to be able to bend over and touch your own toes.

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Andy Petranek
Andy is what you’d call a modern day Renaissance Man: a former professional trumpeter who attended the Eastman School of Music; a snowboarder, mountain biker, surfer, kayaker, outrigger paddler, mountaineer, and former Marine (Gulf War veteran); a professionally sponsored adventure racer; and the oldest participant to qualify for and participate in the CrossFit Games at the age of 43.

Andy is a certified CHEK Practitioner and holistic lifestyle coach. He holds a spectrum of certifications from CrossFit and is also a Vivobarefoot certified running coach. He has trained as a Zen buddhist and graduated with a Master’s degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

Andy founded CrossFit LA one of the first and most successful CrossFit training centers in the world and the first to be featured in national media. He is the co-founder of the Whole Life Challenge, Inc, currently its president, and is also a consultant and life/business coach. Andy lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Julia, and son, Dashel.