Written by Memories Over Macros Coach: Ben Lawson (Learn more about him here)
For years we’ve been told to stretch to prevent injuries. Feeling tight, stretch. Want to warm-up, stretch. Want to increase flexibility, stretch. But is that really the answer?
Why is it bad for warm-ups? The general population may not know that stretching before a workout or sports related competition can be detrimental. In studies since the early 2000s, the science has shown extensive static stretching (steady hold) can significantly reduce power output (Taichi Yamaguchi, 2006). With a reduction in power output, one can expect to experience a worse performance and or greater injury risk. So, for a warm-up, it’s a bad idea.
What about muscle tightness?
Again, let’s look at the science. In 2017 a study was conducted to demonstrate a difference in range of motion before and after stretching. This study was aimed at hamstrings as they tend to be a high area of concern when it comes to stiffness and injury. The participants were stretched for 300 seconds at their maximum tolerance using an isokinetic dynamometer. Their range of motion was then tested 10, 20 and 30 minutes later. There was a slight increase in Range of Motion and decrease in “tightness” at the 10- and 20-minute marks. However, after 30 minutes had passed the subjects were no better off than when they originally started (Genki Hatano, 2018). So, at least for midterm range of motion and or tightness, it doesn’t really help.
How about flexibility?
It clearly increases flexibility. However, increased flexibility, on its own, may not be very beneficial. In fact, it can be the biggest source of injury on this article. Some of the most flexible people on earth are dancers, so who has more insight on this matter? The Australian Ballet. Sue Mayes is the head of physiotherapist at the Australian Ballet. Mayes has done extensive research when it comes specifically to dancers regarding stretching and injuries. She has stopped her dancers from stretching all together and replaced their warm-up (which we will get into later). She notes “Muscles shouldn’t be passively stretched”. Many of the dancers used to do calf stretches with wooden boxes.
Since they’ve removed the boxes and focused on more efficient ways of warming up, she states “Over time, we have seen significant reduction in calf tears”. She goes on to explain further, “The Australian Ballet’s approach now is to really stop using the word ‘stretching’ and ‘flexibility’ and to really try to think about it more as optimizing your capacity, strength and power at those end ranges. We have found that by strengthening, you can increase your range of movement much more effectively and safely obviously” (Pilcher, 2019). Think of a muscle as a rubber band. It is strongest in its shortened position. When it is stretched or elongated it has a far greater chance of breaking, that is unless you reinforce it. That’s where strength comes into play. Flexibility without strength is instability. Instability is weakness and a source if injury.
So, how do you increase range of motion or prevent injuries?
The primary goal of this article is to steer people away from Static Stretching (lengthen and hold). That’s not to say there aren’t some beneficial forms of stretching. An example of this would be PNF Stretching. PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, but don’t worry you won’t need to pronounce it to use it. PNF is typically when you actively contract a stretched position for 3-5 seconds and then relax for 5-10 seconds and repeat. This stretching is not passive and because you are contracting while in the lengthened position you are then strengthening it as well. In 2020, when I battled Leukemia, I spent many weeks and months bed ridden in a hospital. My normal flexibility was severely compromised especially in my hips and hamstrings. Even when chemo made strength training impossible, I maximized my ability to do PNF Stretching. Within a few months my range of motion had returned and my soreness in those areas diminished.
Another study shows strength training can be just as effective as stretching to improve range of motion (José Afonso, 2021). Therefore, strength training in a FULL range of motion is so important! Full range of motion not only stretches, but remember it strengthens in the lengthened range of motion. Yet another argument against half reps..but I digress…
The bottom line
In conclusion, static stretching alone doesn’t really give relief to stiffness. It doesn’t prevent injuries and by itself isn’t optimal to increase flexibility. You’re better off doing full range of motion strength training. If you’re lost, look up mobility exercise. Mobility exercises are essentially bodyweight exercises using PNF methods to allow for better muscle connection, active contraction and increase range of motion without skipping the strength portion. That’s the method I use for warm-ups with myself and clients alike. Remember kids, movement is medicine.
If you have further questions on the matter, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via social media. Good Luck!
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Blog written by Memories Over Macros Coach Ben Lawson (learn about our team here)
Genki Hatano, S. S. (2018, December 3). National Library of Medicine . Retrieved from PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29252096/
José Afonso, 1. R.-C. (2021, April 7). Strength Training versus Stretching for Improving Range of Motion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8067745/
Pilcher, L. B. (2019). Why The Australian Ballet dancers quit stretching. Retrieved from Informa Dance : https://dancemagazine.com.au/2019/09/why-the-australian-ballet-dancers-quit-stretching/
Taichi Yamaguchi, K. I. (2006, November 20). Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17194246/