Anyone who has played amateur organized team sports knows this common pre-game ritual: standing in a sloppy oblong circle while your captain lazily announces which basic routine stretch to do next. You’ll cycle through lunges, the flamingo quad stretch, the ‘hug your knee’ stretch, and more.
We all remember doing this in youth sports and high school. Some of us still use this routine as adults. But here’s the question: why?
Conventional wisdom tells us that stretching our muscles helps them get warm, loose, and ready for physical exertion. Is that really true?
Exercise science has begun to uncover what the benefits of stretching actually are, in addition to what types of stretching can legitimately cause us harm. Here are 4 common tropes about stretching that can help you separate the facts from the fiction.
1. Stretching before exercise DOES NOT help prevent injury
This myth is as old as modern sports: stretch before exercising to prevent muscle injuries. This notion is ingrained in youth athletes from the time they join the ‘orange team’ sponsored by a gas station and the local Teamsters Union. We’re told that we’ll keep injuries at bay if we touch our toes and reach our shoulder blades for 10 seconds at a time.
Stretching cold muscles prior to exercise may actually increase the likelihood of injury. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up your muscles by walking or jogging. But depending on your sport of choice or your level of capability, you might choose to warm up differently. If you play volleyball or tennis, maybe you’d rather jump rope for minute-long increments. You could also chose to skip or lunge-walk from net to baseline to warm up your lower half. If you use a wheelchair or have other physical considerations, maybe you do push-ups or pull-ups to get your major upper-body muscles warm before stretching.
2. Stretching DOES increase flexibility
Although flexibility is not required for all athletic endeavors, it’s a good idea to stay generally fit regardless of the sport you play, and being flexible definitely falls under the umbrella of general fitness.
It has been found that stretching - not necessarily immediately before or after exercising - can help increase range of motion and reduce passive tension on muscles and fascia (the collagenous sheath that encompasses all of your internal structures like cling-wrap). Range of motion is crucial to mobility and agility, and both are important to athletic performance as well as our quality of life.
Moreover, flexibility is something that we as humans must maintain throughout our lives, whether we are physically fit or not. Keeping a high quality of life means we will still be able to bend over to pick up things we’ve dropped once we reach senior status. It means being able to lift our legs over the side of the tub without risking a fall. It means being able to reach behind our shoulders to grab the seat belt before we put the car in drive. It only takes 20 minutes a few times a week to do a few simple exercises and stretches.
3. The type of stretching you do DOES matter
Stretching is not just about holding a pose for a few minutes and calling it a day. In fact, there are a variety of stretching methods that athletes and casual weekend warriors alike use to increase flexibility and reduce muscle tension.
- Static stretching. This involves holding a pose that puts tension on your muscles for 15 to 30 seconds, relaxing briefly, and repeating the stretch one or two more times.
- Dynamic stretching. This type involves movement to a degree, and can be broken into two subtypes:
- Ballistic stretching, which is when you hold a pose but “bounce” when you start to feel tension, was once thought to help increase range of motion. This type of stretching is no longer recommended by any reputable source.
- Active stretching is when you move slowly and deliberately through your full range of motion several times - much like tai chi or certain types of yoga.
- Pre-contraction stretching. This is the most complex type of stretching and can be broken down into many subtypes. The most common type of stretch in this group is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF for short. Since these stretches involve using resistance bands or another person, we recommend talking to your physical therapist for support or instruction on the correct methods and purposes of PNF.
Given that each of these stretching methods produces different benefits for your body, you should tailor your stretches to match the activity in which you engage. Learn more about static vs. dynamic stretching.
4. Stretching MAY negatively affect athletic performance
Recent studies have examined the relationship between stretching and other body processes like heart rate, blood pressure, and even the amount of effort it takes to complete an exercise repetition. There is more research to come on this topic, but currently the findings point out that static stretching may actually decrease performance in certain exercise domains, specifically resistance training (also known as lifting weights).
It looks like static stretching may actually decrease the amount of available oxygen in our bodies, which will have a direct effect on your performance of aerobic exercise. Moreover, a study from August of 2019 found that static stretching also increases cardiac overload as well as the amount of perceived effort expended by the subject.
As more studies are published on this topic, we may learn that static stretching has been more hurtful than helpful; either way, it’s a good idea to start diversifying your stretching modalities by including active stretching and pre-contraction stretching to your routine.