Chances are if you’ve taken part in any sport, activity, or physical education class, you’ve given stretching a try. But have you ever asked yourself why you stretch? Today I wanted to review stretching, the rationale behind it, and what the science is saying.
First off, let’s run over the two main types of stretching. Static stretching, which is probably what you’re most familiar with, involves bringing a tissue to the end of its range and holding it there for an extended period of time. Dynamic stretching on the other hand involves moving the tissue from a neutral position to end range in a smooth controlled manner.
People give a variety of different explanations for why they stretch; to help with post-exercise muscle soreness, to increase flexibility and range of motion, or to improve performance as part of a warm-up. Some of these reasons are founded in science, whereas some have been passed down from coach to coach and friend to friend a lot like some of my grandmothers old home remedies. Like her home remedies, some of them work, while others aren’t worth the time. Let’s see which ones pass the test.
Firstly, if you’re stretching to try and prevent muscle soreness, you may be better off saving time and doing something more productive. A review of the literature, which included studies looking at stretching a variety of body parts, stated that stretching before or after exercise makes no significant difference in post – exercise muscle soreness. So it’s either best to work at a lighter intensity and prevent it all together, or be ready to put up with a some delayed - onset muscle soreness for 48-72 hours.
On the other hand, if you’re stretching to improve your range of motion, you’re on the right track. Both static and dynamic stretches have been shown to improve range of motion at a variety of different joints in both the short term after a single stretch, and long term after a period of regular stretching. Just make sure the range of motion you are trying to achieve is necessary. A lot of people believe they need to have the flexibility of a gymnast, however, more motion requires more strength and control. If you can move comfortably without compensating throughout the activities you need and want to do in the run of a day then maintenance is your best option.
Lastly, if you’re stretching to help improve your performance as part of a warm-up, you should make sure you’re picking the right type of stretch. Static stretching held for the recommended time has been found in multiple studies to impair performance (power, agility, balance) immediately after the stretch, whereas dynamic stretching seems to carry the benefits of improving your range of motion without the decrements to performance. So if you’re waiting behind the start line at your next race, or going out for a Sunday walk, make sure to keep your warm-up dynamic and sport specific.
On the whole then, stretching has been shown to improve range of motion, but probably won’t help you with your muscle soreness and may even impair your performance as part of a warm-up if you’re performing static stretches specifically. Hopefully this helped clear up some reasons as to why you should and shouldn’t stretch, but if you do have any questions about stretching feel free to stop by the clinic or contact us here.