Does Stretching Even Do Anything?

It’s been so ingrained in to our psyche over the years. You have to stretch!!

People will always tell you they need to stretch more. But no one ever asks the important questions. Like, does it even work?

Seriously. Is stretching even good at improving flexibility? And more importantly, does being more “flexible” actually help you prevent injury?

Obviously, I’m mainly referring to static stretching here, which involves holding a stretch for a certain period of time. The more traditional form of stretching we are all used to.

I remember reading years ago – in the awesome book Supertraining by Mel Siff – that static stretching affects the passive Parallel Elastic Component. Whereas the part of the muscle responsible for contraction is actually referred to the Series Elastic Component, which is affected more by dynamic stretching and lengthening under tension. Even back then I remember thinking, “why the hell do people make such a fuss about static stretching if it is only affecting the parts of the muscle that aren’t even responsible for contracting? Wouldn’t it make sense to focus on the Series Elastic Component instead?”

What does that mean in English? Well, the times when you actually NEED to be flexible is usually when you’re DOING an activity right? So, static stretching, which stretches the passive structures, seems like it would be a total waste of time.

Well, let’s find out…

Firstly, people usually think they need to stretch to be more “flexible”. Being more flexible helps prevent injury after all. Doesn’t it?

Well, here’s some awesome information from Stuart McGill, world renowned back expert, on the science of flexibility. (taken from Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, 2009)

“Blindly increasing ROM rationalised by the belief that it is beneficial is problematic”

“There is no relationship between static joint flexibility and dynamic performance”

“There is a documented NEGATIVE correlation with more flexibility in the back and higher subsequent back problems”

“Stretching, to many individuals, is done to lengthen muscle in a passive sense yet there is little evidence that this occurs”

So basically, static flexibility doesn’t help you when you’re actually doing something active. Plus there’s little evidence that even static stretches are that effective at even stretching the muscle!

What are you really stretching anyway?

Most people would probably say it’s all about lengthening the muscles, but this isn’t entirely true.

The are multiple factors that contribute to your flexibility.

1) Obviously the muscles around the joint are one of the structures involved, but more than one muscle will have an influence

2) Passive tissue restrictions, such as joint capsules, ligaments, bony surfaces, etc

3) Neuromuscular modulation of length and tension. Or, in English, the nerves in the region play a role.

4) Pain threshold of an individual. If you have a high pain threshold, you’ll be able to push the range of motion further.

Basically, your muscles, joints and nerves. And how you handle pain.

In a nutshell, static stretching doesn’t even increase your range of movement in the dynamic context you’re after. And not only that, you’re not even lengthening the “muscle” the way you thought you were!

So what do you do?

What’s the best way to gain range of movement?

“More evidence favours stretching to modify the neuromuscular processes…the evidence suggests that modifying the neuromuscular process has the most effect on the functional range of motion, but these changes are short lived and must be challenged daily

“The concept of active flexibility is more important for performance”

Dynamic warm up techniques and stretching techniques such as PNF work to address these areas and are much more beneficial in that sense than just holding a stretch.

In a nutshell:

  • Don’t try and be more flexible just for the sake of it
  • Be specific to the activity you are trying to improve
  • Use different range gaining methods and approaches to target passive tissues together with the neuromuscular components
  • Slow twitch fibres may require longer stretches. Sustained static stretches may be indicated here. This may be important for a specific athlete. It may not be important for you
  • Use both static and dynamic stretches for both the series and parallel elastic components.
  • All directions are important
  • Don’t try and make yourself flexible just for the sake of it. You need a functional range of movement that is specific to the activities you do.

Still confused?

  • Static stretching doesn’t stretch the dynamic structures and doesn’t help with your dynamic flexibility.
  • Being more flexible for the sake of it doesn’t lower your risk of injury.
  • Keep your warm up SPECIFIC to the activity you are about to do. Warm up sets along with some dynamic flexibility work.
  • Passive stretching, if at all indicated, comes AFTER the workout.
  • Consistent daily work if you want improvement.

There may be neural factors affecting your flexibility and holding you back. You may need to incorporate neural glides, loaded stretching, PNF, foam roller work, etc. to work on all different aspects.

Range of movement is not about lengthening your muscles and being more flexible just for the sake of it. It’s a co ordinated control of the muscles, joints and nerves to control movement in conjunction with controlling the stability of the movement within the range of motion.

Make sure you come and see me if you are unsure as to what’s the best method for you and your situation.

Why “Good Technique” is Not Enough

On the surface it seems strange, how can you have good technique and yet your technique can still suck?

The simple reason is that good technique is more than just achieving what looks like good alignment.

The timing and sequencing of muscle activation patterns play not only a huge role in power production but also also how the body’s tissues distribute the forces and load.

In achieving good technique, you need to be aware of 2 things:

1) Alignment

2) Muscle activation patterns

Alignment:

Obviously this is an area where books can be written, but as it isn’t the main focus of the article, I won’t go in to great detail here.

There is no one perfect alignment. No one size fits all. It’s always a trade off. If you change technique to take pressure off one area, it will be distributed to an adjacent area. Sometimes this is exactly what we are after though. An example of this is adjusting someones technique so the load is distributed more to the hips rather than the lower back.

As a general rule:

– aim for symmetrical alignment i.e. left to right

– pay attention to weight distribution as this can determine where the force gets distributed i.e. weight through the heels and mid foot while squatting as drifting on to the toes can cause people to place more pressure on their backs than their hips

– neutral joint position of critical joints such as the vertebrae of your spine

Muscle activation patterning:

This obviously still coincides with alignment, but is also the main reason why someone can seemingly have “good” technique on the surface, but – because of poor muscle activation and neural sequencing – still have quite bad technique and leave themselves open to injury.

It really boils down to 2 key aspects:

1) How well you “control” your aligment

2) Where and how you develop your force production

Both of these aspects are controlled by 3 key groups of muscles, your:

Local Stabilisers vs Global Stabilisers vs Global Mobilisers

Local Stabilisers:

Think of different muscles as having different roles. There are some muscles that are quite small and literally are the only muscles that may cross certain joints. When they contract, they don’t actually cause any movement, but actually increase “segmental stiffness” (this is a good thing). By doing this, they contribute to the stability of the system. If these muscle don’t work (which can happen sometimes in response to pain), the stability of the system is severely compromised, which greatly increases your risk of injury.

Global Stabilisers:

As you start working your way outwards, you come across muscles that provide control – especially rotational control – to the system. These muscle should be efficient in shortening to their full inner range, controlling the lengthening and decelerating under load and also isometrically “holding” things in place when needed. Your Glut Med is a good example of this in pelvic / hip / and lower back stability.

Global Mobilisers:

Their main role is actually cause the movement. These are the ones that usually get the whole focus when we are doing an exercise. But, as you can see, they don’t contribute the stability of the system. Rather, they are reliant upon the other muscles to do their role to stabilise in order for them to be effective in producing the movement. By just focusing on these, we can sometimes miss the importance of the other two. Until it’s too late and we hurt ourselves.

I have been quoted in the past with regards to fixing someone’s technique along the lines of “keep doing what you’re doing, just do it differently”.

While they initially laughed, it is actually true. Sometimes there isn’t just an “exercise” you can do to fix a problem. It’s learning how to correct the neural motor pattern IN that movement that is more important.

It’s not WHAT you are doing, it’s HOW you are doing it.

The activation patterns. The timing. The sequencing. One good example most people are familiar with this is the timing of the Glut Max in power production and sequencing in the context of the whole Posterior Chain.

All of these muscle groups, the Local Stabilisers, the Global Stabilisers and Global Mobilisers, are just as – if not more important – than just the alignment.

If you think you are having issues with your technique, need help with pain while lifting, or would like to learn if you are in fact doing your exercises correctly, contact me for an initial consult to run through everything in more detail.