Flexibility has long been considered an important component of physical fitness so stretching has become a staple of many exercise programs. Unfortunately, nearly all the benefits people think they are getting from stretching don’t hold up when held up to the scientific research. This blog will address some of these misconceptions about stretching and make recommendations about how better to spend the time you dedicate to exercise.
1. Stretching to warm up:
a. The research has categorically shown that stretching is not effective as a pre-exercise warm up - this is because pulling on the muscles by stretching does not increase their temperature and it can actually reduce your ability to produce explosive power before a workout. The best way to warm up is to do a milder version of what you are about to do. For example if you are going to perform weighted squats in your workout, your warm up should include some shallow bodyweight squats to prepare you physically and mentally for the session.
2. Stretching to prevent injuries:
a. Put simply, the research indicates that stretching has no effect on injury prevention. Interesting studies which follow army recruits get one group to perform injury prevention stretching before exercise and the other group to do no injury prevention exercise. There are no differences between groups. Running groups have been studied extensively and those who stretch before running do not have lower rates of injury.
b. Instead of stressing out about stretching before every exercise session, put that energy towards things that we know ACTUALLY reduce the risk of injuries:
i) Managing how much exercise you do - avoid big jumps in how much you do, and if you haven’t been exercising for a while gradually build up. Remember the 10% rule - don’t increase the amount you do by more than 10% per week.
ii) Warm up! - As mentioned above - a warm up that includes 5-10 minutes of general light exercise like brisk walking or cycling followed by low intensity versions of what you are doing in the workout.
iii) Make sure you get enough sleep - sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of injury. So prioritise 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but if you have one bad night of sleep, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise!
3. Stretching to prevent post exercise muscle soreness:
a. There is no evidence to show that stretching reduces post exercise muscle soreness otherwise known as DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. In fact, there is very little you can do about DOMS - except to be confident in the knowledge that if you keep consistent the soreness you get from starting a new program will slowly reduce with each session.
4. Stretching to treat an injury:
a. Stretching is often prescribed post injury to supposedly ‘correct’ muscle imbalances and ‘lengthen’ tight, overused muscles. This is not the case and we know that it is unlikely muscles are actually lengthening, rather you are increasing your tolerance to stretch. Thinking of your body as ‘out of balance’ and ‘tight’, even if it feels like this, is not helpful. Most injuries should be treated with gradual load management, basically exposing your body to more stress, little bit by little until it returns to pre injury levels of ability or better. Further to this, stiffness after injury is more likely a response from your nervous system as a warning about movement as opposed to a lack of it.
5. Stretching to improve flexibility
a. Stretching can improve flexibility! However, the important question to ask is - why do you want to improve your flexibility? Most people have enough range of motion in their joints to achieve all the physical tasks that are meaningful to them. Unnecessarily increasing joint range of motion does not make tasks easier, nor does it improve our health. Arbitrary measures of ‘good flexibility’ like being able to touch your toes is not meaningful to performing daily tasks and does not mean you will be better at other tasks or of have improved health outcomes.
However, If you feel that you don't have enough range of motion to do the day-to-day tasks that are meaningful to you (such as reaching overhead, squatting down to the ground, putting on shoes and socks) then we think that a well designed resistance training program that mimics everyday movements will better decrease these feelings of stiffness, whilst also giving all the other health benefits that come with strength training.
So if this has made you realise that you probably don’t NEED to be stretching just because you thought it was good for you, or because a someone told you you should, here’s what we think you are better off spending your time doing:
i) Resistance Training - Resistance training improves our ability to perform daily tasks and improves a range of health and fitness outcomes like strength, muscle mass and bone density. As mentioned above, it has also been shown to improve flexibility! So it's a much better bang for buck option than stretching.
ii) Aerobic Exercise - Very few people meet the minimum guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic training per week. Going for a walk, a jog or a swim is great for weight management, improved heart health and mental wellbeing. So why not put that time you previously spent stretching to something that will significantly improve your health!
iii) Balance Exercise - Maintaining the ability to stay on your feet prevents falls and gives us confidence with recreational activities - both of which are important for health - so this too would be a great substitute to stretching.
The case for Stretching: