Sore? You need to stretch more. Stiff? Better stretch more. Bad posture? Gotta stretch. Don’t want to get injured? Better stretch. Injured? Should’ve stretched. Stretch now!
It’s a nice idea. Except that it has no basis in reality (more on that in a moment).
Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you that they don’t stretch enough. How much is enough? More, I guess. Ask most people if they’re flexible and they’ll tell you they’re not. But how flexible do you need to be? Who are you comparing yourself to? I have friends who are yoga instructors. They are MUCH more flexible than I am but that doesn’t necessarily make me inflexible. Can you put on your own socks? Wash your own hair? You probably have adequate flexibility.
Listen, I’ve wanted to be able to do the splits ever since I saw Bloodsport and Van Damme doing the splits in between two chairs. Why do I want to do the splits? Because it’s cool. Do I NEED to be able to do the splits? Well, I’m not an elite gymnast, or a dancer, or a hockey goaltender… so the fact that I can’t do the splits isn’t actually holding me back in any area of life… except that I can’t do the splits so I’m just not as cool as I wish I were.
I’m not saying that stretching has no place, but just that the vast majority of people are doing it wrong and for the wrong reasons.
When I say stretching I am referring to the Static Stretch, the standard fixed position where you feel a “pull” and then hang out for 30 seconds or so. There are, in fact, many different kinds of stretching and they are NOT created equal. I will write another article about quality stretching, but for now, if you take away nothing else from this article, I just want you to stop static stretching. Seriously, quit it. Stop before you hurt yourself.
[Disclaimer: This is general information for a general audience and may not apply to you specifically. You may have a real need to be doing static stretching. Maybe. Make good choices.]
Because this recommendation to discontinue static stretching seems to fly in the face of all the evidence that supports it I feel it is helpful to make you aware of the following.
There is no evidence to support that stretching will reduce your delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise. There is no evidence that stretching will protect you from injury. There is no evidence that stretching will speed recovery post-injury. There is no evidence that stretching offers many benefits at all. However, there is evidence that static stretching has the exact opposite effect of all the benefits we have been taught it provides.
In a controlled trial, a group was given a basic strength test and a simple stretch test, then split into 5 groups. Group A did Static Stretching (what we’re talking about), Group B did Dynamic Stretching (we’ll talk about that another day), Group C did full range of motion Resistance Training, Group D did the same Resistance Training but stretched first and Group E did the same Resistance Training but stretched after. All the groups (yes, even the one without stretching) increased a comparable amount in flexibility. But what is most noteworthy to me, is that Group A (Static Stretching) gained their flexibility at the cost of LOST strength. Meanwhile, all other groups increased in strength and flexibility and, also noteworthy, Group C (Resistance Training only) gained the most strength.
Here’s what static stretching does, in brief: it reduces tone in the muscle, and may, over time, increase the length of the muscle. Tone is that natural tension that resides in the muscle that enables it to be ready to do work. No tone means you have a flaccid paralysis. In other words, your muscle feels “tight” so you stretch to reduce that tone. Reduced tone means the muscle has a reduced ability to produce power. That would explain why Group D didn’t gain as much strength as Group C.
Here’s another thing; healthy muscle stretches. Unhealthy muscle doesn’t. That means that if you have a “tight” muscle or “tender spot” that the healthy tissue stretches and the unhealthy part stays locked down. The only question unanswered was why Group D also didn’t gain as much strength. I can’t answer that based on a research study, but I can offer insight as a Clinician with some experience treating people and their various injuries.
Here’s the scenario, you do some heavy lifting (let’s say it’s the dead lift). Now your back is “tight” and sore. So you stretch it. It hurts a bit but you know that stretching is important. Later that day or the next your back has seized up and you call your Massage Therapist for an appointment as soon as possible. Muscles will go into spasm typically as a form of protection. You worked very hard, your muscles tighten up, effectively sending a “stop” signal. They’re done. Wisely (I hope), you stop. Then you stretch (oops). You shouldn’t stretch a spasm. When you stretch a spasm you’re pulling on a muscle that doesn’t want you to move anymore, so it tends to tighten instead. Or worse, it tears. So you have a worse spasm and maybe a minor strain injury. The lift didn’t hurt your back. The stretching after did. So my theory? Group E didn’t make as much strength gains as Group C because they were more sore or injured and therefore held back on further training sessions.
So, seriously, stop it.
I used to leave the house for a run and I’d return to the house on the run, then stop in front and stretch and even gentle stretching felt bad. But stretching is good, right? I didn’t want to be too sore. But I was sore. Sore hamstrings, sore calves, and for a time plantar fasciitis (more than sore feet). I was reading the words of a top running coach and he mentioned that he found a lot of the yoga-enthusiast runners he coached seemed to get injured more. Hardly solid research, but certainly a knowledgeable source. Later, in a different book, I read about a US Olympic track coach who would pull his guys from training for the day when their hamstrings tightened up. Not stop and stretch. Done for the day. Again, these guys aren’t researchers, they’re clinicians in their fields. Worth considering what they think. And also easy to put to the test…
So I stopped stretching. I adjusted my run to finish 1K from the house and then I’d walk home and head straight in for my post-run protein and shower. Within a week, my hamstrings settled down and my calves stopped hurting. The feet took a little longer and some ongoing treatment, but they stopped hurting too.
Anyone who has read my recent posts will note that I’ve had improved mobility from changing my strength training, (which has happened despite living with the after-effects of significant injuries earlier in life) and in the nearly complete absence of any stretching.
So it comes to this, I KNOW what we’ve all been told about static stretching. But it doesn’t hold up to the evidence. So we know it doesn’t make sense to stretch before activity. We know there are dangers associated with stretching after exercise. And we know that just stretching can make you weaker. We also know that it won’t stop the soreness. We know that we can’t stretch away sore spots. It doesn’t prevent, and can even cause, injury. So unless you have a special stretching plan well-suited to your specific needs, and you actually have a need (wanting to do the splits like VanDamme does not count), for most of us we can just do away with the typical model of stretching.
I know this will leave a great empty hole in your life, but don’t worry, I’ll try to address that soon…
Until then, here’s a puppy. Stretching.
If you have been reading my articles and have an interest in applying the principles to your workouts so you can improve your strength and flexibility, be sure to learn more about my online coaching!