Are you achieving what you think you are when you stretch?
Many people stretch on a daily basis because of the believed health benefits. But, is stretching actually improving fitness? Is it promoting optimal health? Is it even increasing flexibility?
Many engage in stretching in an effort to increase flexibility, warm up prior to exercise, increase performance, prevent injury, reduce muscle soreness and/ or alleviate stiffness. There are various types of stretching like static stretching (which is what people typically engage in when they think of stretching), contract and relax stretching also known as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), and dynamic stretching.
It is usual to think that stretching is beneficial, as it is frequently discussed and common to hear “stretching is good for you”.
But the truth is– the benefits of stretching has never been proven.
In fact, there is evidence that stretching does not prevent injury (2,3,5), does not decrease muscle soreness (2,3), is not a proper warmup (4), and can actually decrease exercise performance and increase the potential injury (4,6). So then why do people continue to stretch?
For starters, many people regularly engage in stretching because it feels good or do so because it helps relieve muscle pain and stiffness. But the important question to ask is: why does the pain or stiffness shortly return after stretching? Why is the pain there in the first place?
We know that the body operates within the range where it feels stable. Stability is the key when talking about the symptoms of tightness because these symptoms are essentially a check engine light for a malfunctioning part in the body. Stretching a tight muscle can certainly relieve it from being tight but is basically placing a Band-Aid over the cause.
Paul Ingraham of PainScience.com sheds light on what may actually be happening when we stretch, stating “increased flexibility may simply be an increased tolerance for the discomfort of excessive muscle elongation”. Basically, Paul is stating that stretching may not increase elongation but may only be increasing the bodies tolerance of stretching”.
This is important and something we need to consider when asking “are we achieving what we think?” Are we actually changing the length of a muscle or are we just increasing the body’s ability to tolerate the stretch? It turns out the latter is probably correct. In addition, we need to also ask why the body is limiting the length of a tissue? It is common for people to feel tightness and stiffness in one area but be caused by other muscles not being able to shorten effectively in another area.
Lastly, why do we need increased range of motion (ROM)? If you are an athlete that requires extreme ROM to compete, then yes you need to increase ROM. However, for the majority of the population increased range of motion beyond a certain amount does not improve health or decrease injury. People who habitually stretch rarely see increases in ROM except when done diligently over long periods of time. It is important to consider why it takes so long to increase ROM when stretching; the body operates where it is stable and stretching does not increase length of a muscle but increases the muscles tolerance to a stretch!