Stretching: Not as Important as You Think

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Static stretching is one of the biggest time-wasters when it comes to training.

Its importance is also way overblown.

Static stretching is performed when we hold a muscle under tension, without moving, for an extended period of time. This is all of your classic hamstring, quad, glute stretches, etc.

hamstring stretch

Dynamic stretching are movements done as part of your warm up to prepare for the training session. Dynamic flexibility movements are still an essential part of a warm up and are not the target of this post.

Static stretching before a workout, game, or practice is potentially dangerous. Performing static stretches before activity can decrease performance and increase risk of injury. Do not bother with static stretching before activity.

walking-lunges

This is probably the hottest I have ever come into a blog post. If you are a consistent visitor to the site, I thank you greatly. Also, this is a little change of pace. How can one topic get me so fired up? Maybe (probably) I need professional help.

The main reason is that I do not understand what the fascination or importance with static stretching is or comes from. Why?

It ignores the cause of tightness in a muscle

If a muscle feels tight then there is a reason. Stretching would be helpful for a muscle that is truly short in length, often not the case. Muscles can also feel tight due to alignment, strength, posture, tissue quality, protective tension, overuse, or injury. Those areas are not going to be improved by stretching.

If a muscle feels tight because of bad alignment then that misalignment must be corrected first. An example is the hamstrings. Someone with an exaggerated curve in their low back is stuck in extension. This puts tension on the hamstrings. Someone who lacks the ability to get out of extension is going to feel tight in the back of their legs. All stretching does is further give in to problem and not decrease tension.

Lets say that a muscle has a small tear in it and as a result the muscle feels tight. Stretching that muscle is going to pull on that tear. Pull on it enough and the problem is going to get worse.

Remove the cause of the tightness in a muscle and the problem will fix itself.

Range of motion in a joint is more than just muscular flexibility

When someone has a restricted range of motion everyone’s first thought is to stretch.

If someone lacks mobility then we have to look at why do they lack the mobility and do we even want mobility there in the first place.

An example is the low back. The low back is not built for tons of range of motion. Too much can be problematic for spinal health. The low back should be able to flex, to an extent, but not uncontrollably. Stretching the low back is just going to cause problems.

Things that can restrict joint mobility are tissue quality, joint alignment, bones of the joint, mobility or the joint, and stability of an adjacent joint.

I like to use the hips as a good way to explain mobility. Hip mobility is affected by the ankles, knees, hip, low back, and upper spine. If the ankles lack range of motion, they are going to make the knees somewhat unstable. Unstable knees are going to lock up the hips to provide stability for the lower body. Too much flexibility through the low back also causes the hips to tighten up.

Improve mobility/stability at the appropriate joints and we do not have to worry about stretching.

Too much stretching negatively affects performance

Developing force and power requires a lot of body stiffness and control. Certain joints must be mobile enough to move but overall athletes want to create total body stiffness in power movements. Powerful movements include running, jumping, cutting, changing direction, shooting, swinging, and throwing.

I can’t name too many sports that do not require those things.

Decreasing force or power production is undesirable for athletes that want to perform well.

On the other hand…

Now, there are people who need to do some static stretching.

Candidates for this group would lack the ability to get into positions that they need for their sport, activity, or life.

We then need to assess, plan, and rule out:

  • injury
  • alignment
  • posture
  • tissue quality
  • stability in appropriate joints
  • mobility in appropriate joints
  • hypermobility
  • bony structure
  • body control

Someone who is clear of all of those things may genuinely have short muscles that restrict their range of motion. These people should hold static stretches for a long time, very often.

But…

I have one caveat. Static stretching at the end of a workout can be a good cool down. This can be the first step towards recovering from the training session. After the workout, slowing down and relaxing can be very beneficial. Most people are not going to do any harm with this.

There is nothing inherently wrong with static stretching. Its use has become overblown and prescribed blindly. Do not assume that static stretching is a magical cure to everything because it provides very little benefit.

The better strategy is to improve mobility in mobile joints, stability in stable joints, joint alignment, and posture. Cover these bases and you probably do not need to stretch.

It does not treat injuries, it does not (most times) fix tightness, and it is not the hero you need nor deserve. Rare cases aside, it should be used at the end of a workout to unwind and start the recovery process.