What is the single most common answer we hear to all of these questions?
‘How do I improve my exercise performance?’
‘How do I decrease my risk of injury?’
‘How do I improve my flexibility?’
‘How do I decrease muscle tightness?’
You guessed it, that time tested, old as dirt advice of ‘just stretch’.
But is stretching all it’s cracked up to be? Have we not found anything that works better and lasts longer?
Well, that’s why we wrote this. Yes, there is a better way.
But first let’s define what we mean by “stretching”.
The 4 Most Common Variations of Stretching:
This is what most people think of and do. This particular stretching routine includes bringing a muscle to max tension and holding for an extended period of time (30+ seconds), either by yourself or with a partner.
Dynamic implies a constant state of motion. This type of stretching is performed by taking the muscle to and from end ranges and often mimics the activity about to be performed. Like lunges for someone about to run.
Ballistic stretching involves quick bouncing motions taking muscles very quickly to end range and is often seen in athletic drills. Think of a runner bouncing up and down prior to their race.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation:
This usually involves alternating contraction and relaxation phases to increase stretching by reducing the body’s natural protection mechanisms.
For instance to lengthen the hamstring you could bring it to end range and then either squeeze its opposite/antagonist (the quad) for a length of time, and then relax into a greater stretch.
Static stretching will be what we refer to for the majority of this blog.
Why Do We Stretch?
The most common uses of stretching include:
- Stretching because it feels good
- Stretching to address tightness or pain
- Stretching to improve flexibility
- Stretching to improve performance
- Stretching to prevent injuries
Looking at one of the most commonly stretched muscles, the hamstrings, can give us good insight into each of these.
Stretching because you like to or it feels good.
Why does stretching feel so good?
When muscles are forced beyond their current range of motion micro tears can occur in the muscle and the body responds by releasing the body’s own version of painkillers to start the healing process.
Much like we see in the news on pro athletes getting addicted to painkillers, on a much smaller level people can get addicted to our natural pain relievers produced by stretching. Leading many to want to stretch more and more.
If you like to stretch and it helps motivate you to get moving we recommend that you continue, but within certain parameters. However, consider the below effects when you continue.
Stretching to address tightness or pain
Oftentimes the feeling of tightness or pain is our body’s way of getting our attention, rather than an actual ongoing tightness.
It’s the check engine light to get us to do something.
The feeling of tightness is not related to the stiffness of the muscle. For instance, individuals who felt tight muscles on one side of their neck had the same muscle length when compared to the non “tight” side.
Oddly enough hamstring length gets longer for individuals with “tight” hamstrings after working the neck (far away from the hamstring) without any stretching by addressing a common place we hold our stress.
You can experience this effect by following the exercises in the videos here.
Try this test to see if you are “tight”:
Then perform this work on your neck, complete the test above again to see the change:
Clearly feeling tight doesn’t actually always mean you ARE tight.
Stretching to Improve Flexibility
If there is an actual limitation in range of motion of a muscle, static stretching would be the best treatment … right?
Actually it has been found that by using FULL range of motion, resistance training can increase flexibility just as much as stretching.
An option for the hamstring focusing on FULL range of motion that will give you not just flexibility but also strength would be Romanian Deadlifts:
Stretching to Improve Performance
Another main reason people stretch prior to activities is an expected improvement in their athletic performance.
Unfortunately research shows the opposite may be true.
45 athletes were broken into three groups, static (held) stretching, dynamic (constantly moving) stretching, or no stretching.
Stretching was done for 30 seconds for three reps, three days a week, for three weeks (lots of 3’s we know).
Those who stretched (statically) had a 15% decrease in their hamstring strength compared to the other groups.
Their triple hop distance (a common sport measure) was also decreased by almost 4%.
A analysis of seven different studies found that the longer you hold your stretch the greater the decrease in performance:
- 30 seconds decreasing by 1.1%
- 30-45 sec decreasing by 1.8%
- And 60+ second decreasing by 4.8-7%
While these percentages aren’t large, it’s still the wrong direction. You don’t want to be doing something that reduces your performance right before you are trying to perform!
Stretching to Prevent Injuries
It makes sense that if you actively decrease your performance from holding stretching, as we see above, that trying to perform after that would be more difficult.
In a meta-analysis of 25 studies of 26,610 people with a total of 3,464 injuries between them some interesting correlations occurred. ⠀
Injury reduction correlation:⠀
- Stretching: 4% reduction⠀
- Multiple Exposures Program: 38% reduction
- Proprioception Training:45% reduction
- Strength Training: 69% reduction
While stretching does have an injury reduction impact, the impact of conditioning your muscles is a much better use of your valuable time. If you really want to reduce injury choose to move through full motion, against load.
You truly can’t go wrong getting strong.
Should You Stretch?
Dynamic (constantly moving), loading (strength training) variations of stretching show to be healthy and have positive effects.
Static stretching does the opposite.
Before you stretch, it may be best to look for the root cause of why your body is constantly sending a signal of tightness. You may not actually be tight.
If you like to stretch, it is safe to do so for 30-45 seconds with minimal negative effects, but understand that it is likely not producing a positive outcome either.
Your best investment is to work that muscle through a full range of motion under load that challenges it.
If your coach or healthcare provider’s management of pain or tightness revolves around stretching it may be time to make a change and work towards solving why that muscle always feels tight or painful.
At Gray Duck, we focus on what works and we adapt to ensure we are always in line with the highest standards of care.
Our patients don’t static stretch, we help them attack the root cause of why they are always feeling tight to produce a lifelong change.
Ready to put in real work to get real results?
Click HERE to set up your free 15 minute phone consultation with a Specialist to see how we can help!
🚫The content in this is NOT medical or health advice and is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only. See a healthcare professional if you have any questions about your individual healthcare needs.🚫
- Dieterich AV, Yavuz UŞ, Petzke F, Nordez A, Falla D. Neck Muscle Stiffness Measured With Shear Wave Elastography in Women With Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2020;50(4):179-188.
- Cho SH, Kim SH, Park DJ. The comparison of the immediate effects of application of the suboccipital muscle inhibition and self-myofascial release techniques in the suboccipital region on short hamstring. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(1):195-197
- O’Sullivan K, McAuliffe S, Deburca N. The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2012 Sep;46(12):838-45. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090835. Epub 2012 Apr 20. PMID: 22522590.
- Barbosa GM, Trajano GS, Dantas GAF, Silva BR, Vieira WHB. Chronic Effects of Static and Dynamic Stretching on Hamstrings Eccentric Strength and Functional Performance: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jul;34(7):2031-2039.
- Kay et al., Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: January 2012 – Volume 44 – Issue 1 – p 154-164