Posted by: charleenesfitness | March 22, 2013

The in’s and outs of stretching

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stretching May Be Bad?


“…there is no research which proves categorically that there is any need for separate stretching sessions, phases or exercises to be conducted to improve performance or safety.” Dr. Mel Siff,  Supertraining

This may sound like a crazy person rant on the subway but science has shown that stretching does not improve performance (it can diminish it), warm you up, prevent soreness or most injuries for that matter and does not make you taller.  So why then do so many people stretch?  One guy once actually admitted “so I can impress the girls in Yoga class.” Obviously, he couldn’t be helped.  The fitness industry is fraught with many conflicting ideas concerning stretching.  Depending on your goals, it might not be a problem if you are ‘tight’.  Sometimes tightness actually helps people in sports and (tight hamstrings can make you more economical and a better runner- according to a Nebraska Wesleyan study) in daily activities by protecting against injury. Contrary to popular thinking, inflexibility isn’t always due to simple disuse or a lack of stretching.  There’s often a functional and genetic basis for tightness and stretching may not solve the ‘problem’.  In a thinly veiled ego boosting effort I’d like to compare myself to the world class Kenyan runners…like them, I don’t participate in flexibility programs.  The costs and time outweigh any of the dubious benefits.  

There are many kinds of stretches.  All stretches fall under these two categories:

  1. Static – it’s held in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time usually 10-60 seconds  – Includes: Passive, Static active and Isometric
  2. Dynamic– done by moving through a challenging but comfortable range of motion repeatedly, usually 10 to 12 times and holding for no longer than 2 seconds and incorporates muscle contractions – Includes: Active, PNF and Ballistic- there are more compelling reasons to perform these stretches than static ones.

A goal of stretching a tight muscle is to push it into a position it was not capable of before.  But why is the muscle tight to begin with?  Are you addressing the symptom and not the cause? All your muscles work in pairs and have opposing/antagonist muscles.  When one muscle is tight the opposite muscle is many times over stretched and possibly weak.  By addressing the antagonist muscle you may relieve the tightness without spending one minute stretching!  Moreover, new research actually shows stretching does not increase the length of muscles. The greater degrees of flexibility garnered with stretching are likely the result of boosted tolerance to the pain of stretching, not actual lengthening of tissue.  In other words you get used to the pain and can go farther in the stretch.  

“…researchers…found that when athletes did static stretches, performance often suffered. Many couldn’t jump as high, sprint as fast or swing a tennis racquet or golf club as powerfully as they could before they stretched. Static stretching appeared to cause the nervous system to react and tighten, not loosen, the stretched muscle, the research showed.” -NY Times  

Another major concern of flexibility training is stretching past the point of what you can control. If you can not control the range of motion there is little reason to go there.  Let me show you what I mean.  Take a look at the photo below.  Even though,  I’m not crazy about this ‘quad stretch’ it serves as a good example.  Please stand up and try it.  I’ll wait.  Were you able to get your heel to your butt? Ok, now tighten your hamstring, remove your hand and try to keep your heel up.  Did your foot drop?  This is called your flexibility/strength window: the distance between your passive flexibility and your active range of motion.  

Why would you stretch past the point of where you can control?  Many times these flexibility/strength windows are so big it contributes to injury.  It is not uncommon to slip and be flexible enough to fall into a certain position but not strong enough to hold it, so you tear some soft tissue.  The next time you stretch try powering your limb/joint into the stretch position using only the strength of the opposing muscle.  Hold it there for a prescribed amount of time and then attempt to bring it a little farther into the range of motion.  You may find it useful to have a friend or trainer act as a barrier that holds your position.  Do not have the person “push” you into a range of motion you can’t control. 

If you are going to stretch here are some rules:

  1. Get an evaluation and find out what muscles and joints are tight and why.  You may not need to stretch. 
  2. Flexibility is largely genetic and increasing your flexibility takes a long time – re-evaluate why you are stretching and if your time might be better spent elsewhere. 
  3. Only static stretch after your warm up, not before.   Do the activity you are warming up for, but slowly at first.   
  4. It may be good to lightly stretch at night before bed, many people report it helps them sleep. 
  5. No static stretching prior to an event or activity – this will inhibit the muscles from contracting fully during your movements.
  6. Don’t over stretch!  At best, you will lose stability in your joints and at worse your will tear a tendon (which shouldn’t be stretched to begin with) and forever have a looser joint (which will open you for future injuries).  
  7. Don’t stretch loose joints, it will only make them more unstable.  
A big bugaboo of mine is watching people stretch all their muscles, including the loose ones.  Think of your body like a out of tune guitar.  When you tune an instrument, would you stretch all the strings the same, or just the out of tune ones?  Stretch all the joints and muscles the same and you’ll be a looser and more unstable version of your asymmetrical self.  If you insist on a flexibility program find out what is tight and why and then stretch only those muscles that need improved range of motion. 

The one uncontroversial truth about stretching is that it does increase flexibility…albeit after a long and dedicated effort.  Now you are more flexible so you can show off in yoga class, join the circus or be better at doing splits. Simply participating in a smart exercise program will actively move all your joints thorough their normal safe range of motion; this may be enough.  Ask yourself and search your soul, is independent flexibility training worth the gym time even though most of its benefits are unconvincing?   

Full Disclosure:
Before you discredit this whole article because you think I have a confirmation bias about stretching please know I used to be a huge advocate of flexibility training.  If truth be told, I taught other trainers about its efficacy and how to properly integrate it into one’s routine – and many of them are still doing it today. The fact of the matter is that the damned science caught up and got in the way which pushed me to reevaluate my flexibility protocols.  That being said, sometimes I do stretch because it feels good, maybe I’m just a masochist? 


1. Mel Siff, Facts and Fallacies of Fitness, Denver, M. Siff,  pp 121-122; 2002.
2. NYTimes: Right reasons to Stretch
3. NY Times: To Stretch or Not to Stretch
4. Shrier. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 1999. This paper and Herbert are literature reviews:  contradictions in existing research, and conclude that there is no convincing evidence that stretching is useful
5. British Journal Of Sports Med: Stretching Before Exercise 
6. PT Journal: Stretching Does Not Increase Muscle Length  
7. C. O’Connor : Muscle Activation Techniques  

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