To Stretch or Not To Stretch


The New York Times recently ran an article on stretching. In this article, 2 studies were mentioned that looked at the effectiveness of pre workout stretching.

They both showed that pre workout stretching can impede speed and decrease strength. Both of the studies support limiting stretching before physical activity.

I would never recommend pre-workout stretching. Post workout stretching is what is effective for loosening up muscles and preventing muscle pulls and other injuries.

One study from the New York Times article was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. It concluded that if you stretch before you lift weights, you will have less strength and balance.

The other study was out of Croatia and was published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. It concluded that pre workout stretching is unnecessary and likely counterproductive.

Personal trainers have not recommended pre workout stretching in a while. I have not recommended pre workout stretching in over 10 years. In physical fitness circles it has been known that it is more effective to warm up cold muscles to get them ready for exercise, rather than stretching cold muscles.

A pre-workout warm up can be any type of low impact cardio vascular exercise easily for 5 to 10 minutes. Just enough to get the blood flowing. I do joint mobilization drills. These drills get the joints and ligaments and muscles all loosened up and ready for a workout. You can even take a hot shower to warm up before exercise. You can walk, do the elliptical, row machine, stair master, anything to get your muscles moving and get you warmed up.

If you do a static stretch before exercise though, it will cause the muscles initially to reflexively constrict. Thus causing the muscles to tighten up and be less ready for exercise. Thus the muscles will be more susceptible to injury.

I was taught that performing a static stretch (taking a muscle to its end range of motion, where it is usually painful, and holding it there), can stimulate the golgi tendon reflexes. These are little receptors on the tendons that get stimulated when a muscle gets overloaded. When stimulated these reflexes cause the muscle to relax and drop the load to prevent injury. After this, the muscle will tighten up.

Stretching after exercise is, however, essential. You can exercise at 9 am and stretch at 10 pm and it will still be effective. Every day we do things to tighten our muscles up a little bit. Each and every little irritation throughout the day will cause the muscle to tighten up just a bit. That tightness is cumulative, it builds up over time. Slowly causing muscles to become tighter and tighter until they tear and become sprained or strained.

The problem is that there is little research showing the benefits of stretching. When researching what stretching really does for your body, it can raise more questions than it can answer.

The American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Personal Trainer doesn’t say a lot about what stretching can do for you. This manual says that most of the advice on the subject of stretching is based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience of personal trainers, coaches and physicians.

The manual goes on to say “Unfortunately the existing science of flexibility training often presents professionals with more questions than answers regarding the benefits and risks associated with stretching.”

It is known that stretching and flexibility training can give people a wider range of motion in their joints, which can help them to perform their daily activities and improve balance and posture, which are important in preventing falls and other injuries as people age.

Stretching will help to maintain range of motion as we age. As we get older muscles get tighter and fall deeper into old muscle patterns. If nothing is done to loosen up or stretch out the tightening muscle, it will eventually become fibrotic and loose its’ ability to contract. Long term this will cause permanent loss of range of motion.

Unfortunately I see this over and over again in my office. I commonly see people who sit in front of a computer all day and then go home and sit in front of the television or computer all evening. Without stretching and exercising, the muscles slowly get tighter and tighter over time. They eventually get so tight, and have been tight for so long, that they can actually alter posture and how the body moves and works. These type of people will have a hard time looking up at the ceiling, leaning their heads back, reaching behind them, and other issues. These tight muscles will cause the surrounding joints to wear differently than they were designed to, and can eventually cause osteo-arthritis.

This reduced range of motion will usually be accompanied by pain, arthritis, sprains and strains throughout the years. The sprains and strains will create scar tissue which will restrict range of motion even more. If this process has been going for years, it can literally take years to get back to normal range of motion, if it is possible.

Stretching is most effective after exercises. It can even be done hours after exercise. It does make a difference which exercises you do. Most people will do well with mild to moderate static stretching. In order for the stretching to help you, you must do the right muscle groups. I put together a good, full body stretching routine in the Pain Free Lifestyle program. It hits all of the major muscle groups with stretches that are not too severe.

You can injure yourself stretching though. Don’t bounce while stretching. Take the joint you are stretching to its’ end range of motion, but  do not force it. Take it to the point of feeling pain and then back off a little bit. Go Easy! Stretching is not where you want to push it. Stretching should be relaxing and you should feel better afterwards. If you are in pain afterwards, something is wrong.

Stretching, if done correctly, can maintain and improve range of motion. It can maintain and improve balance as we age. It can keep you moving and it will allow you to be active for the rest of your life. Make it part of your lifestyle. It is, the Pain Free Way.



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