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Is Stretching Good For You? The 3 Myths You May Think Are True

MONDAY FEBRUARY 15, 2016

Nicole MolinI’m sure back in the day, maybe in gym class, you heard how stretching is very important and a required component of every exercise / sports training program.

Fast forward to today and let’s take a look at the current scientific data on stretching. It might surprise you that what you learned back in the day isn’t necessarily true today.

Myth 1: Stretching before exercise will improve performance

Static stretching, where you hold a pose for 20-30 seconds, use to be very common in exercise training programs, especially before and after a workout.

Is this really helping your performance? Research suggests that these types of movements aren’t providing many benefits and are inhibiting your performance.

Researchers at the University of Zagreb re-analyzed data from 104 studies and found that “static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent.” Explosive muscular performance (i.e. jumping, weight lifting, a tennis or golf swing, etc.) was reduced too. (Simic et al. 2013)

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded “if you stretch before you lift weights, you may find yourself feeling weaker and wobblier than you expect during your workout.” (Gergley 2013)

While stretching loosens muscles and tendons, which may seem like a good thing for your body, it also makes these areas “less able to store energy and spring into action, like lax elastic waistband in old shorts.” (Gergley 2013)

Myth 2: Stretching will relieve my sore muscles

Did you train hard yesterday and are feeling the effects today? Stretching might not be the answer if you’re looking to ease the pain.

Let’s take a look at the current research…

Researchers at the George Institute of Global Health in Australia looked at evidence from 12 randomized studies and concluded “muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.” (Simic et al. 2013)

Robert D. Herbert (2011), one of the authors of the George Institute study, told the New York Times that the Institute’s interpretation of the data is that “on average, stretching really does not reduce soreness, but the reduction is tiny”, likely too tiny to be worthwhile in practical terms. (Reynolds 2011)

Feeling sore from exercise the next day or two is normal and okay. The muscle soreness comes from micro tears in muscles, so simply resting those muscles is likely the most effective way to relieve the discomfort. Now this doesn’t mean sitting on the couch all day. All this means is you might have to take a day off of strength training and supplement your workout with a recovery/mobility day, a bike ride, walk or light jog. Another effective technique to relieve the discomfort is foam rolling.

Myth 3: So now stretching is bad and I should stop

Relax! Even though stretching may reduce performance and might not help post-workout aches, maintaining a healthy range of motion and overall flexibility is important for your health. Keep in mind a healthy range of motion is not being able to turn yourself into a pretzel. Being too flexible can cause other issues which I will discuss at a later date.

Instead of thinking about static stretching (holding a pose for 20-30 seconds), think of stretching as a fluid warm-up accompanied by movements to get your body prepared for the exercises in your workout. Dynamic stretching (slow, controlled movements) can include things like iron cross, scorpion, open book, side lunge, etc.

Though static stretches have been getting slammed in strength and conditioning research studies, they may be beneficial for people who spend a lot of time sitting, especially office workers behind a desk.

If you do sit behind the desk all day the static stretches you may perform a few times a week (after, not before, a workout) include hip flexors, hamstrings, chest and shoulders. What you want to avoid is stretching the muscles that are already being lengthened all day, while sitting, including glutes and upper back.

“There is little evidence that stretching does anything important,” Herbert tells The New York Times, “but there is also little to be lost from doing it. If you like stretching, then do it. On the other hand, if you don’t like stretching, or are always in a rush to exercise, you won’t be missing out on much if you don’t stretch.”

References:

Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. 2011. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The Cochrance Database of Systematic Reviews. 7:CD004577

Gergley JC. 2013. Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained me. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(4): 937-7

Reynolds, G. 2011 Nov 16. The right reasons to stretch before exercise. The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2016 from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/the-right-reasons-to-stretch-before-exercise/

Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G. 2013. Does pre-exercise stretching inhibit muscular performance? A meta-analytic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science of Sports. 23(2): 131-48