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Stretches to Build Strength
Antagonist Stretching During a Workout

Stretches to Build Strength
If you're working the back, stretch the chest.

Stretches done during a workout can make you stronger. They must be done at very specific times, and targeted at very specific muscles. But before you try them, you need to understand the two big misconceptions most people have about traditional stretches and when they should be performed. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stretching before a workout does NOT reduce the risk of injury. In 2004 the CDC said, "Stretching was not significantly associated with a reduction in total injuries..." Researchers found that athletes would be better served by doing warm-up exercises.

The CDC conclusion was reached after going through 361 scientific articles on stretching going all the way back to 1946. CDC researchers went on to say, "Further research, especially well-conducted randomized controlled trials, is urgently needed to determine the proper role of stretching in sports."

In follow-up studies, scientists found that stretching before exercise, actually reduces the strength and power you can put into a workout. Here's how it happens.

Your muscles work by getting impulses from your nervous system. The nerve endings are stimulated, causing muscle fibers to contract and move. The more the nerve endings are stimulated, the more movement you get. Stretching short circuits that process.

A stretch sends a signal to the nerve endings to slow down the impulses and relax. That reduction in impulses can last for more than 30 minutes. Your muscles don't get as many impulses, so they can't move as much and it makes you weaker. Stretching before a workout makes you weaker than if you didn't stretch at all.

That's why since 2004, most exercise professionals recommend putting stretches at the end of a workout. That way they won't diminish your strength and you still get the benefits of increasing range of motion.

Now however, researchers have found that stretching muscles DURING a workout can make you stronger. The key is you've got to stretch the antagonist or opposite muscle you're working. This is how they figured it out.

Researchers divided the subjects into two groups. Both groups did three sets of seated rows, an exercise that targets the lats. In-between each set, the subjects took a two-minute break.

One group did nothing during the break. The other group had their pecs stretched by a researcher for 40 seconds. When the subjects went back for the next set, the ones who had been stretched completed more reps than the ones who did nothing but relax. In other words, stretching the muscle group that was opposite of what they were working, made the subjects stronger.

Researchers believe the benefit is the result of something called Sherrington's law. When a muscle is stimulated, it's antagonist or opposite must relax. Stretching the opposing muscle you're working, forces the working muscle to relax MORE. Rapid relaxation leads to a more rapid recovery, and muscles that are more rested are more able to work. 

For people who are looking to "enhance strength performance and muscle activation in an acute manner," this is a great new way to do it. There are just a few important things to remember.

Don't stretch muscles during a workout that you intend on exercising. For example, these stretches wouldn't help you if you were doing a whole body workout. This process only works if you're stretching muscles that are opposite of what you're using.

Opposing muscle groups include:

  • back and chest
  • back and shoulders
  • biceps and triceps
  • hamstrings and thighs

If you're working the back, stretch the chest. If you're working the biceps, stretch the triceps, and so on.

Don't hold a stretch longer than 30 to 40 seconds. Must studies on stretch duration show a limited return when they continue for a minute or more.

Don't incorporate other stretches into your workout. Concentrate on stretches that work opposing muscle groups only. Save the rest of your stretches for when you're finished with the weights.

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