Last week I was doing some research on stretching. I was surprised by how much contradictory information I came across. The role of stretching is one of the most divisive issues in the field, even among top strength coaches and scientists. I found articles advocating stretching before and after exercise, only after, active stretching before with static stretching after, only static before and after, never stretch, etc. I want to put a little different spin on this with my 2 cents.
Now, instead of taking sides and arguing on what is the best way and time to stretch let’s start by discussing why we stretch in the first place. First, you need to understand what stretching is. Stretching is simply lengthening a muscle to increase the range of motion of a joint. With that said, the following are the most common reasons why people stretch:
- To increase flexibility
- To reduce muscle soreness
- To improve performance
- To relieve muscle tension and prevent injury
- To warm up or cool down
- Because it feels good
Other than increasing flexibility or the suggestion that it feels good, there is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, there is mounting scientific research to show otherwise. Lets take on one at time.
To increase flexibility: Stretching can certainly help increase flexibility, but how flexible do you need to be? Who sets the standard? Does your perceived lack of flexibility interfere with life? How often is your day interrupted by the inability to touch your toes? Other than for the purpose of certain entertainment professions or sports such as dance or figure skating, where intense stretching starts at a young age, flexibility seems a little overrated to me. As a matter of fact, many of these young athletes deal with significant physical issues as they enter adulthood. I’m not saying stretching is the sole cause, but it’s something to think about.
To reduce muscle soreness: Despite the Internet being flooded with trainers advocating stretching to help reduce muscle soreness, this is a complete myth. Stretching a sore muscle might give you a temporary 15-20 minute reduction in pain, but beyond that it’s ineffective. As unattractive as it might sound, light exercise involving the sore muscle might be a better alternative.
To improve performance: Now, I have never been a complete anti stretching guy. However, I do agree that the old school thought of “GENERAL” stretching before and during your workout is a waste of time and counterproductive. You’re better off doing some form of an active dynamic warm-up. Static stretching a muscle before you get ready to use it will inhibit your nervous system and make you weaker. Not a good idea, especially if you’re getting ready to jump or run.
To prevent injury and relieve muscle tension: I’ve grouped these two together for a reason. I’ve always been a big believer you should listen to your body. The human body is wired for survival. It can do amazing things to protect itself from harm. Maybe muscle stiffness is a natural protective mechanism. Maybe the purpose of muscle stiffness is to prevent a joint from reaching a range of motion where it’s vulnerable to injury. Maybe after stretching, although you temporarily feel better, you are now at a higher risk of injury and worse off than before. I’m not going to say this is always the case, but I can tell you from experience I’ve never seen a client permanently eliminate muscle stiffness and injury simply from stretching. In fact, I’ve seen many get worse from aggressive treatments such as excessive stretching and deep massage. So what causes muscles to become tight? The answer is many things, but it’s usually a form of stress (emotional, physical, or chemical). Muscle tightness may be a representation of the body protecting itself from instability. The associated tightness is just a symptom for some other underlying cause (weakness). Thus, without fixing the problem (muscle weakness), the tight muscles cannot relax. When the nervous system feels the joint is at risk, it simply reduces the activation of any muscle crossing that joint complex, thus you become functionally weaker and reduce your chances of getting hurt.
To warm up and cool down: One of the most pervasive myths in sports is the belief that stretching before activity improves performance. As I stated before, stretching before or during exercise can shut down your nervous system leading to a reduction in muscle activation, consequently making you weaker, run slower, and not jump as high. Luckily this belief has gained popularity among fitness professionals in recent years due to better research. So what about after exercise? If there was ever a best time to stretch it seems the strongest case can be made for post exercise. However, the jury is still out on this one. The tightness you experience after exercise may be more of a result of increased blood flow to the working muscle. This will go away on it’s own without stretching. Also, even though you’re done exercising it’s never a good thing to inhibit your nervous system. It should be noted that most injuries occur outside the gym doing daily activities.
Because it feels good: This is easily the best argument for stretching. Who am I to tell someone what feels good to him or her. However, keep in mind that any temporary relief may simply be the calm before the storm. If you’re consistently having pain your body may be warning you that it’s close to injury. Injuries can take a long time to heal and put your fitness goals on hold for a quite some time. Never risk injury by forcing an exercise with a highly imbalanced body.
By Steve Van Zandt
Steve Van Zandt is a fitness professional from upstate New York whose unprecedented dedication to transform his clients delivers results and self-confidence. Prior to his career as a trainer, Steve led soldiers as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army. In 2001, Steve left the military, but took his discipline, determination, and motivation with him and applied it to his passion for the health and fitness industry. Well adjusted to the civilian life of college and work, he was involuntarily recalled back into the military to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon his return, Steve finished college and completed his bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from Florida Atlantic University. He has since worked alongside some of the world’s top experts in the fitness industry and has trained numerous elite level NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB athletes. Steve maintains a high thirst for knowledge and frequently looks to challenge himself as he continues to add top national certifications to his resume and dedicate himself to daily study and research.
Steve believes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and when you achieve results, you will be so inspired that failure will never be an option. He has earned the following: B.S.E. in Exercise Science, CISSN (Certified Sports Nutritionist), NSCA-CSCS (Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist), NSCA-CPT (Certified Personal Trainer), NASM-CES (Corrective Exercise Specialist), NASM-PES (Performance Enhancement Specialist), and MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) Jumpstart Certified.