To Stretch or not to Stretch, that is the Question

Last week I had a couple client conversations that went like this:

Client #1- I read that you are not supposed to stretch before your workout? That it could lead to injuries? Why are we stretching before our workout?

Me:  Well, that’s a bit of a generalization of the research, but for YOU, since you are not doing heavy weight training or power or speed workouts, I think you are fine. 

Client #2- I don’t want to do any unnatural movements when I stretch.  I don’t want to get injured.

Me- What do you consider unnatural?

Client #2- Anything that is a twisting motion.

Me- But your body naturally twists in many different motions, even when walking. And a lack of rotation in joints that are designed to rotate is often the source of injury. I think you should make sure that joints that are supposed to rotate can do it well, don’t you?

You can see by these conversations that there is still a lot of confusion around stretching.  This is understandable, as most average fitness enthusiasts miss the most important details about the whys and hows and whens of proper exercise.  This is often because the facts and conclusions of exercise physiology/fitness research are diluted or, conversely, overblown by the media and the fitness industry.  We rarely get the whole picture from a random article online, or a brief snippet in AARP or Cosmopolitan. And forget about facebook ads. Don’t even go there.

You might hear all kinds of crazy generalizations like…..

Never stretch before exercise

Never do static stretches

This 1 stretch will fix your back

This 1 stretch will injure your back

All you need to be healthy is to stretch

So, what’s the truth about stretching?

Based on my research, looking at studies from over 10 sources ( these can be provided to you if you desire..just ask!), dating back to 2005, Here are the basic conclusions of the studies:

Static Stretching, where stretches are held for a long period of time without joint movement, does not decrease soreness from exercise nor improve muscle readiness when performed prior to exercise.

Static Stretching prior to exercise can impair muscle performance, power and strength in athletics and sports performance activities.

Static Stretching is counter-productive in hypermobile (excessively flexible) individuals.  Over stretching muscles/joints that are already too flexible merely takes you farther into a poor biomechanical status. In my practice, I have noticed that highly flexible people have MORE pain syndromes than non-flexible individuals. Highly flexible individuals need to balance their hypermobility with strength.

Static Stretching does not warm-up muscles, and cold muscles don’t accept stretching well. Warm-ups should consist of movements that mimic the activities to be performed while warming up the soft tissues of the musculoskeletal system.  The best way to do this is through low level dynamic movements. Static stretching does not fit that bill.

Static Stretching has little effect on helping to heal injuries.  It certainly can help to create better muscle balance at an injured joint by reducing the “stiffness” created by the injury, but as far as actually rehabbing the injury, it has little impact.

As Paul Ingraham summarizes in his article “Quite a Stretch” in

Most of rehab is (or should be) just “load management” — that is, doing not too much or too little at each phase of recovery, taking baby steps back to normal function. This is doubly true for the overuse injuries, which account for a huge percentage of all athletic injuries.

Stretching obviously doesn’t have much to contribute to load management. At best, it could be considered a form of light exercise that could be used for some stimulation in the early stages… but you could and probably should mostly just stick to dynamic joint mobility drills and very easy strength training instead.

So, what’s the average exerciser supposed to do? What’s right for YOU and YOUR body and YOUR exercise regimen? Here are 5 quick thoughts on stretching that might help clear a few things up.

1- Yes, the average exerciser should stretch in some way before a workout. Of course, this depends on your workout and your body’s needs. Your stretches should primarily be short repeated movements, not long held stretches. This is called “dynamic mobility work”.  Sometimes a longer held stretch might be appropriate, but keep it to 10 secs or so. If you are not exercising for athletic activities, you will be fine with some short static stretches.

2- If you are warming up for a sport or heavy strength or power/speed workout, do not do static stretches. Instead, move your body throughout planes of motion similar to the sport or activity you are participating in. In golf, and most sports, move in all planes- including rotational planes. Your body is designed for rotation. Use it or lose back swing

3- If you have significant flexibility issues, daily stretching might be helpful. But killing yourself with hard stretching, or spending hours on end trying to elongate muscles is futile. Often, I find more important than stretching may be self-myofascial release and/or massage. These methods warm tissue, bring blood flow and neuromotor activation to muscles, and this goes a long way to reducing stiffness in the muscle. Lastly, research is quite clear….Strength training has a bigger impact on flexibility than static stretching.

Self Myofascial Release tools are helpful for muscle stiffness.

4- Make sure you know which muscles need to be stretched because they are too short in length, and which muscles have normal length, but just feel tight or stiff due to weakness or “protective tension”. People who feel stiff and tight usually assume their motion is limited by short muscles, but this is rarely the case, despite how it feels. Stiffness isn’t the same as being inflexible. Two totally different things. Most stiffness is a sensation, a symptom, a kind of mild pain with movement rather than an actual limitation of movement.  Hypermobile people typically feel stiff and thus think stretching will fix their “sensations of tightness”.  It can often have the opposite effect, unfortunately.

5- Yes, you can stretch after your workout. Especially highly repetitive activities like running or golf. But this will not stop you from being sore from your workout.  It just feels good,  and that’s fine too. Stretching post exercise won’t hurt you, as it is restorative in some sense, but don’t expect it to stop delayed onset muscle soreness.

2 final points to remember….

You can’t push a wet noodle uphill. Your body needs strength and stiffness to produce correct movement. Don’t think you should prioritize stretching over strengthening. Your body needs both to move well and without injury.

Sitting excessively is the devil. The human body craves movement, craves exercise.  It’s our fountain of youth.  Sitting produces muscle imbalances and can create poor posture. MOVE!! Please. Even if you start with dynamic mobility and short stretches, just do it. Any movement is better than none at all.