Pop into most gyms or swing by any race and you’re more than likely to observe numerous motivated souls performing the time honored tradition of stretching. Starting with the good old days of gym class and continuing well into organized sports, stretching became ingrained in our minds as a necessary, injury preventative task suitable for pre and/or post activity.
But is this alleged work out staple really beneficial?
Could it actually be hindering our performance?
If so, is there a better alternative?
First off, let’s look at the most basic goal of the static stretch. (Static stretching refers to getting into a position that elongates some aspect of the soft tissue, and holding it for some duration of time.) Outside of general habit, people tend to resort to stretching when they feel tight. If this is the case, the goal of the stretch would be to “loosen up” by way of elongating tissue. However, studies have shown that in order to actually physically lengthen the muscle by way of static stretching it must be held for 3-5 minutes, 4-6 days a week, for 10-12 weeks.
Moreover static stretching actually diminishes blood flow to the area being stretched. We don’t want this when dealing with an injured or injury prone tissue that requires the oxygen and repair mechanisms delivered by blood. And we definitely don’t want this when preparing to participate in an event where the muscles being utilized require any type of stamina or endurance, of which is metabolically maintained via utilization of oxygen that is delivered by, you guessed it, blood.
From a neurological standpoint, static stretching actually diminishes feedback to the central nervous system, especially to a part of the brain known as the cerebellum. This is a part of your brain that is highly involved in motor coordination, balance and proprioception (having a sense of where your body parts are in space when not looking at them); a part of your brain that you want to be on point at all times, but especially when engaging in any type of activity. Slower activation and reaction times, decreased coordination and balance all add up to subpar performances and increased likelihood of injury.
So what other options exist?
Well, you can start by implementing dynamic stretching as your warm up. This would include movements like walking lunges, “butt kickers,” air squats, shoulder circles, etc.
In preparation for any activity a smart move would be to increase blood flow to the region being utilized. We’re learning that static stretching can actually do the opposite. However, performing a proper dynamic warm up, including a basic light jog, encourages blood flow, which equals more oxygen and quicker waste removal from the muscles. It also literally warms up the tissue, many times alleviating that tight feeling which provokes so many of us to stretch in the first place.
So you decide to be proactive and try something different; ditching the static holds and intelligently warming up, yet you still feel stiff, tight and an overall lack of mobility. So much so that you’re tempted to revert to your old ways and bend over and touch your toes for 30-60 seconds. Slow down there. We just explained that unless you perform static stretching for an extended time over at least two months, the tissues don’t actually lengthen. Contrarily this method also diminishes blood flow to the tissue and feedback to the brain.
A better option at this point would be aiming to improve mobility in your tissues. For various reasons, whether it postural or remnants of an old injury, our tissues lose their full range of motion due to scar tissue or adhesions within the tissue. When an injury occurs, traumatic or otherwise, eventually your body lays down new tissue in order to repair the damage. Many times due to various reasons, the tissue does not get laid down in the proper orientation and can lead to a lack of mobility or discomfort within the tissue.
These adhesions or scar tissue can be addressed utilizing soft tissue mobilization techniques. This includes everything from the foam roller or LAX ball to techniques frequently applied in our office, mainly consisting of deep tissue stripping, Graston and Active Release Therapy (ART) in order to efficiently eliminate these adhesions and restore mobility to the tissue.
It should also be noted that simply applying these techniques to soothe discomfort and restore mobility is only part of the job. The next stage comes in the form of post mobilization movements. We like to implement a unique, flowing combination of isometric and eccentric contraction, mixed with PNF stretching to encourage optimal recovery and stability.
The one thing static stretching may indeed supply is a mental benefit, especially if it’s been part of your regimen for years. At that point it’s more of a habit that many hold on to for dear life, like our toes when performing that awkward hamstring stretch.
However, as new research and information becomes available it should be analyzed and if it makes sense, applied. This holds true for all aspects of health from high intensity interval training to eliminating gluten from your diet. Even if you are one of the fortunate souls to have skated though an active life unscathed up to this point, if you’ve already made the effort and lifestyle changes to achieve a higher level of health, it would be foolish not implement the latest sound strategies due to habit or sheer stubbornness.
If you’re experiencing stubborn stiffness or tender tightness, or are still suffering residual effects from an injury that should’ve packed its bags and vacated a long time ago, we would be glad to collaborate with you in working towards the common goal of restoring mobility, banishing loitering injuries, and providing you with the tools to enable continued play well into the future.
Page P. CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2012;7(1):109-119.
Wilson JM, Hornbuckle LM, Kim JS, et al. Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance. J Strength Cond Res. Sep 2010;24(9):2274–2279
Nelson AG, Kokkonen J, Arnall DA. Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance. J Strength Cond Res. May 2005;19(2):338–343
Behm, D. G., Bambury, A., Cahill, F., Power, K. Effect of Acute Static Stretching on Force, Balance, Reaction Time, and Movement Time. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2004, 36, 8, 1397–1402.
Comana Fabio. “Debunkning Fitness Myths: Stretching” American Counsil on Exercise 2011, http://www.acefitness.org/blog/1575/debunking-fitness-myths-stretching