To Stretch or Not to Stretch?
Well..it depends! (most classic Physio thing to say)
I’m not sure about your childhood, but I was raised on the idea that stretching before, during and after exercise was the elixir of muscular life, and that without stretching as part of my exercise and sporting routine, I was bound to have my leg fall off… Well, the past two decades of scientific research into this topic doesn’t quite seem to paint the same picture and I’m here to do my best to dispel a few myths and explain a few general do’s and don’ts when you’re limbering up before or after exercise.
MYTH #1- Static stretching improves the long term flexibility of your muscles
I know, I was shocked too. WHAT!? Stretching doesn’t stretch the tissue? That doesn’t make any sense! Well it does stretch the muscle… but it turns out that it would take on average about a 30 minute hold in a static stretch to have a physiologically relevant increase in muscle length or flexibility that lasts longer than a day. So, technically this isn’t a myth, but who’s got 30 minutes PER STRETCH? Long and the short, unless you’re a retired billionaire, you’re not actually lengthening your muscle with that 30 second stretch. It’s important to note that there are a slew of benefits from stretching, this just apparently isn’t one of them.
MYTH #2 – Stretching reduces the risk of injury
Sorry folks, it doesn’t look like any research has confirmed this one. I’m the first to be annoyed by this, spending countless hours after training, before training and at home stretching every little muscle I can think of, only to be told now that it’s not really going to make a huge difference… Maybe this finally explains that one person on your running/soccer/basketball team that NEVER stretches, but NEVER gets injured (we all dislike that person).
DO #1 –Warm up before you exercise!
Do perform a warm-up prior to higher intensity exercise, such as a sport practice or game, running, lifting heavy in the gym or anything that will require higher demands from your muscles, ligaments and joints. Usually anywhere between 15-20 minutes will suffice and focus on the muscle groups and types of movements that you’ll be utilizing the most, for example, runners should focus on warming up the lower body more than the upper body or soccer players should incorporate light kicking before heavy kicking. And if you like stretching before exercise, just make sure it’s dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching: Involves controlled ranges of motion at a low to medium speed that somewhat mimics the activity you’ll be completing; think high kicks in front and across the body for soccer players. Finally, focus on those spots you know are always a bit tight, maybe it’s low back, the hips, spend a bit more time on motions that get that area moving and grooving for your big run or hike.
DON’T #1- Static Stretch before exercising
This is an area that remains somewhat controversial, but the balance of the research appears to be leaning towards this being a no-no. The main theory here is that holding longer static stretches reduces something called the “stretch reflex” in our muscles. What you need to know is that this “stretch reflex” is very important for muscles to produce powerful movements such as running, jumping, sprinting and changing direction, so pretty much any sport that requires you to move. If we reduce this reflex, it’s been shown that we cannot run, jump, or kick as hard afterwards, all good reasons to avoid this activity prior to exercise.
DO or DON’T #1 – Static stretch after exercise
Again, the research here is murky at best. Although it doesn’t seem that we can actually lengthen our muscles, and there is not a lot of evidence to support that stretching after exercise actually reduces our risk of future injury. There is some good evidence that it reduces the amount of soreness we experience from exercise..and well..it typically feels good to do it. So this one I leave in your court, if it feels good and you like it, keep on keepin’ on, if it’s boring and you don’t like it, it seems like it’s okay to skip on this one.
DO #2 – Dedicated mobility program as needed
I’m not saying you need to become a yogi master. But if you have a chronic hamstring that’s always just a bit tight and nags at the back of your mind in the 85th minute of your over 40’s master’s soccer game, it just might pay off to spend 5 minutes of your day improving that hammy strength and length so you crack that shot top corner and have bragging rights for the week. I’m just saying. If you’re not sure how to get over that nagging injury and what mobility program might work best, that’s when talking to a registered physiotherapist might be a good option to explore.
DON’T #2 – Stretch an injured muscle or joint
We’ve all been there. We feel something give in a muscle and we think, oh it’s just a bit tight. If I stretch it out it should calm down. The issue is that when we strain or sprain a muscle or joint, we often do a little microdamage to the tissues. Which is fine and will typically recover with some relative rest and slow return to activity. However, when we then start to intensely stretch out that already injured tissue, we are simply continuing to microdamage the tissue, effectively restarting the healing process over and over again. However, if things seem to be getting generally worse even with relative rest and slow return to activity, then it’s always best to get things checked out by a medical professional.
DO #3 – Eccentric exercises to improve flexibility
Why are yoga master’s so flexible!? Well, they spend over 800 hours doing unbelievable poses. But also, when they’re getting into those ridiculous poses, the slow controlled movements to get there are in effect eccentrically loading a lot of their muscles. It turns out that eccentric loading, meaning your muscle gets longer while your contracting it (think slowly lowering down from a chin-up = lats eccentric exercise) is one of the most supported ways to truly lengthen, and more importantly, strengthen our muscular tissue. So, getting yourself on a great eccentric flexibility program is a smart place to start to really getting more flexible.
In the end, the concept of stretching continues to remain somewhat of a quagmire in the sports and exercise world. I hope that this article has given you something to hang your hat on when it comes to your next exercise session or sporting game. But, if I’ve got you wondering how stretching might (or might not) fit into your active lifestyle, consulting a physiotherapist is always a good place to start to get you moving in the right direction.
Interim Physiotherapist, Thrive Now Physiotherapy