Is Stretching Actually Helpful?

 

We have all heard the advice that is best to stretch before you exercise. They say it helps you limber up and perform better during exercise. And every time someone pulls a hamstring while doing something athletic, the “experts” will say that they should have stretched more. There is certainly something to be said about overly tight muscles and being injury prone. But is it really possible to prevent an injury or improve performance simply by stretching out the active muscles?

While stretching can be a great way to warm up your muscles and joints before exercise, its usefulness is actually hotly debated. It may not be as simple as stretching vs. not stretching. The type, duration, and reason for stretching actually plays a big role in how it will affect your ability to exercise. In fact, some types of stretching may actually promote injury rather than prevent it. In the end, it is all about applying the concepts the right way if your goal is to improve your athleticism and keep yourself limber.

Timing and Type

You probably have a certain image in your brain of what it means to stretch. Pulling your leg behind you to get you heel to touch your butt is a classic example of a stretch for your quad muscles. But did you know there are actually two main types of stretching? The classic stretching that comes to mind is known as static stretching. You usually perform this by pulling a muscles into a semi-uncomfortable position and holding it there for several moments. The second style of stretching is called dynamic stretching. This involves moving though a range of motion that stretches the muscles in a slow and controlled fashion. The difference is that you never really stop and hold any one position.

Each style has its positives and negatives. Static stretching does lengthen the muscle and improve your range of motion but it also tends to temporarily decrease your power and force production [5]. This makes a great choice for your post workout cool-down, but a bad one for you pre-workout warm up. On the other hand, dynamic stretching is great at sort of getting the muscles and joints lubricated and warm. It slightly elongates the muscles depending on the range of motion used, but not enough to produce any ill effects. As such, dynamic stretching is great for warming up but may not do much for that post workout cool down.

 

 

How to Use Stretching to Your Advantage

I mentioned earlier that stretching can actually harm you rather than help you. This often happens when people over use static stretching in the time leading up to intense exercise. Because it does elongate the muscles and decrease power, the new range of motion can throw off your mechanics and actually cause an injury. But even if it doesn’t cause an injury, being too loose actually decreases your ability to generate force. This means you won’t be able to lift as much weight, run as fast, or accelerate as well if you static stretch too soon before you exercise. Instead, you should use dynamic stretching before a workout as it has been shown to improve athleticism rather than hinder it [4].

However, there is still an application for static stretching. Many people complain of being “tight” which hinders them from performing certain movements. If this “tightness” stems from an issue with tendon or ligament integrity, then stretching can actually enhance the healing process [1]. Additionally, a variant of static stretching called PNF stretching may be a great option for those with tightness in the joints. This has been shown to be helpful for people who experience arthritis especially when combined with a training program [2]. Finally, stretching regularly in between training sessions seems to be a great way to improve force production, speed, and athleticism in the long run [3].

Sometimes the tightness you feel isn’t actually a range of motion issue though. If you find that endless amounts of stretching are having little effect on your tight muscle/joint then it you need to look deeper. It is possible for weakness in one or more muscles is the culprit. When a muscle is weak, the other muscles around it have to make up for the lack of stability. This can result in overly tight muscles that are not alleviate by stretching. In this case, strengthening the weak muscle along with some stretching will most likely clear up the issue.

Conclusion

Stretching is one of those controversial topics that people debate about in fitness. Some people swear by the practice of daily stretching while others feel it is a waste of time. The key lies in applying the right kind of stretching to the situation at hand. Too much static stretching before a workout can have some negative short term effects. In this case, dynamic stretching is the better choice. But doing some static stretching between training sessions as a recovery tool can actually improve athleticism over time. However, you can’t always stretch out the tightness you feel in a muscle. Sometimes it isn’t tightness that is the issue but weakness instead. Whatever the case, you just have to be smart about why you are stretching and use the correct type as needed.

 

References

  1. Skutek M, van Griensven M, Zeichen J, Brauer N, Bosch U. Cyclic mechanical stretching enhances secretion of Interleukin 6 in human tendon fibroblasts. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy. 2001 Sep 1;9(5):322-6.
  2. Williams MA, Williamson EM, Heine PJ, Nichols V, Glover MJ, Dritsaki M, Adams J, Dosanjh S, Underwood M, Rahman A, McConkey C. Strengthening And stretching for Rheumatoid Arthritis of the Hand (SARAH). A randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation.
  3. Shrier I. Does stretching improve performance?: a systematic and critical review of the literature. Clinical Journal of sport medicine. 2004 Sep 1;14(5):267-73.
  4. Yamaguchi T, Ishii K. Effects of static stretching for 30 seconds and dynamic stretching on leg extension power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2005 Aug 1;19(3):677.
  5. Power, K., Behm, D., Cahill, F. A. R. R. E. L. L., Carroll, M., & Young, W. (2004). An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise36(8), 1389-1396.

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