Stretching the truth

Can you handle the truth about stretching? When we’ve invested so much of our precious time droning through boring stretches and touting their benefits? And we floss our teeth and wear sun screen and eat yogurt and stretch, not because we particularly like any of these things, but because they’re good for us.


Well the truth is that stretching is limited. It’s necessary and good at times. But for relatively healthy individuals, stretching is definitely overrated.

Stretching neither prevents nor promotes healing of muscle sprains strains.

In fact, I’ve seen quite a few people try to stretch muscle strains to the point that they interfere with proper healing. So after a muscle strain, back off for a while. For circulation that promotes healing, try some light calisthenic and cardiovascular type activity that involves the strained muscle group but does not reproduce the pain.

A lack of flexibility is NOT the primary reason why you strained your hamstring while trying to stretch that single into a double.You expected your body to sprint full steam on a cold day in March after months of sitting on the couch and jogging?

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 2.57.05 PMWhat prevents muscle strains? Proper training progressions and strength training are the most helpful things you can do to form strong, resilient muscles that don’t get torn apart from high force, high speed muscular contractions.

Prepare for weekend warriordome by building up gradually with lunges and squats and dead lift variations and weekly sprinting sessions during the winter. Identify and work on significant asymmetry and form imbalances, which are the enemy of muscles.

Stretching does not reduce muscle soreness. 

It just won’t. You can decrease muscle soreness by going easy at first and gradually acclimating to whatever it is you need to do. Or by going like a mad man and making up for it with ibuprofin.

Stretching before activity does not increase performance.

In fact, there’s ample evidence that static stretching causes a short-term slackening effect on muscle-tendon units, which translates to decreased peak strength and power. Not exactly what you want for acts of powerful athletic awesomeness.
Instead try regularly strength training and working on muscle and movement imbalance. Before activities and events, go through 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic warm up and simply going easy and breaking a sweat before pushing full steam.

Stretching does not improve strength gain or muscle size. 

Muscles grow larger from the progressive overload of being torn apart, healed, and torn apart again. The best way to do this is through heavy resistance training. Muscles get stronger through both an increase in their size and (even more so) through the brain learning to utilize them more efficiently.

Stretching lengthens muscles only temporarily, and little to no permanent structural adaptations take place. Much of our apparent increase in flexibility is due to increased stretch tolerance; the nervous system learning to put up with the discomfort of a stretch.

Stretching does not improve posture. 

Let me be careful here, because I truly believe that specific stretches that reverse the mechanical forces that we regularly place on our bodies are quite valuable. But more than anything, posture is a result of complete neural programming. You could say it’s a lifestyle thing.

Stretching and strength training and exercise in general will all effect posture, but not nearly as much as whatever it is you do for hours at a time over days and weeks and months. Duration is king when it comes to posture, that’s why the only real fix is to be ever mindful of how you carry yourself. It’s a matter of adopting the correct posture until neural reprogramming is established. It will take time.

That being stated, every single person who sits for a spell (and that means you!) should be doing thoracic extension, hip flexor stretches, and cervical retraction. But it’s all for naught if you collapse back into a heap in front of the computer.

Don’t hate on stretching too much though.

Physical therapists make a living by getting people to stretch and performe corrective strengthening exercise. I regularly implement hands-on mobilizations and manipulations that help loosen tight tissue and establish new movement patterns. By tight tissue, I’m referring to joint capsules and ligaments and scar tissue that’s may be interfering with proper joint mechanics or directly putting strain on neural structures.

There are certainly some stretches that specific athletes should be doing at specific times. For example, most (but not all) pitchers, volleyball players, and other overhead athletes should be doing some version of shoulder internal rotation and horizontal adduction (cross body) stretches to counteract the bazillion repetitions of external rotation and abduction strain they place upon their shoulder joint complex.

So stretch what you need to and when you need to. But don’t feel too guilty if you have to skip it before exercise. My dentist says you should floss your teeth every day though.