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.
- 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.