Static stretching has been widely regarded by fitness professionals as a must in any physical exertion, but are you wasting your time? In this article, we look at what you should and shouldn’t be doing in order to avoid injury as much as possible.
Does static stretching do what you think it does?
As a sports therapist, this is a common question that I am asked and discuss with patients. I feel there is such a conflict and often a contradictory plethora of advice that is outdated and misleading on social media and amongst well-meaning colleagues.
There is quite a battle and debate for and against the benefits of holding a stretch, with such bold claims that you had to perform these stretches or you are:
- going to get injured
- be inflexible and therefore be limited in your activity potential
- fail to recover from exercise and activity
Like most people, you probably took the time to go through a full stretching routine before your workouts but slowly returned to your old habit of not stretching. In my clinic, many patients opening comments are “I know I’m injured because I don’t stretch enough.”. Many of you who have come to see me for treatment know my feelings and beliefs on stretching.
What I would like to do is have more of you questioning why you are static stretching as I feel there has been a lot of confusion and beliefs regarding the need to stretch. Paul Ingraham writes one of the most up to date and thorough pieces in pain science.com and describes our infatuation for stretching as “the ritual that many simply go through.” You only have to open a magazine or search on any mainstream social media site to see the focus of attention driven at runners and those exercising. I feel that there are still outdated and unproven messages out there that holding static stretches can break down adhesions, disrupt scar tissue or lengthen muscles to improve posture!
There is very little evidence to suggest that static stretches prevent injury or risk reduction. The Australian Ballet has withdrawn static stretching from their dancer’s warm-ups, and report no increase in injury, a decrease in injury, and no decrease in performance. They have now opted to include strength training through joint range instead. There is little evidence to support the fact that warm-up static stretching reduces or prevents post-exercise muscle soreness, yet a 5-minute internet search will find that these claims are being made time and time again.
Static stretching and general flexibility.
Evidence suggests that “tight” muscles can be lengthened and we can be more flexible. What is interesting is that the notion of flexibility as a pillar of health and well being is now being challenged. There is no strong correlation with improvements in general health by performing stretches and increasing flexibility. Activities such as Pilates which involve strength work and incorporate elements of dynamic stretching can be more beneficial to health. But not in the way many people believe. Pilates provides strength by taking your body through a full range of movement.
Another constant I hear in clinic “I feel tight” I have no doubt that this sensation is real, especially in runners. Yet when I assess muscle length – it’s normal! But on assessing strength and capacity – it’s often lacking. I believe people who feel tightness in their muscles, are not tight but are feeling fatigued/tired muscles. We need a different approach to address this, and it’s not static stretching!
We don’t have any evidence at the moment to suggest how long or in which way we should stretch to increase flexibility at this time. The evidence is showing us that the effect may not be lengthening the muscles at all, but improving the tolerance to the stretch, it simply feels better and less uncomfortable. It could well be a neurological effect or sensory adaptation and that’s why you feel like you are more flexible.
Stretching and performance.
We are all wanting to be better, quicker, stronger and more effective. Static stretching to help this is deep-rooted in everyone’s beliefs. Reviewing the evidence, static stretching has no benefit for performance, but performing pre-exercise static stretches reduces maximal output and explosive power. I then find it hard why would anyone want to do anything that is going to affect your running or ability to perform.
In reality, the opposite may be true. You may want to be stiffer and stronger through the range that you need? It makes more sense to me to work on strength and stability, in particular through the ranges of movement patterns that are required during exercise performance when trying to gain improvements.
What else then?
I would be remiss if I did not give you an alternative to static stretching. When it comes to a warm-up, well we should just be concentrating on a simple graded progressive mobility approach. Add in some dynamic drills and speed efforts with mobility that fire up the muscles.
The R.A.M.P method has become a popular approach to warm-ups that provides a structured and simple approach for runners. Helping raise the core temperature and blood flow, activate the muscles, mobiles and focus on movement patterns required and potentate by gradually increasing the demand and stress on the body.
You can’t go wrong by taking your muscles and joints through an active range of movement as part of a dynamic warm-up programme, without prolonged holds at the limit of your range. As well as a dynamic warm-up programme, explore Pilates, Yoga and other types of exercise that allow you movement and mobility as well as strength through the full range.
Better still consider adding in strength training as part of your programme, with exercises such as deadlifts that lengthen muscles under load.
The take home.
I still advocate against static stretching as I feel it’s overrated and exaggerated. There are better things you could do with your limited time. Concentrate on your training, rest, recovery and sleep, rather than worrying about stretching, as these factors all have a strong evidence base to back them up.
Once you have the basics right, if then you want to hold a stretch and it feels great, go ahead.
But remember static stretching IS NOT doing what you think it is doing!
You ARE NOT, improving performance, improving your general health or preventing injuries.