When we feel tightness, stiffness, or pain in a certain area, we often think we need to just stretch it away! Stretching can feel great and can provide relief to pain; but it’s important to note that this is short lived.
At Mobility Innovated, we see strength training as the best long-term approach to this sensation of tightness. It may be that the tightness you’re experiencing is in fact telling you those muscles need some strength! Here are some common myths about stretching to discuss this week.
#1: Stretching should be part of a warm-up routine
Static stretching – which involves holding a stretch for a period – has been used as part of warmups for decades. Recent research has suggested that warmups may not be the best time to incorporate this static stretching. Of course, this depends on the type of workout you’re doing.
We believe that a warmup should support you as you head into a workout for both performance and safety. Current research points toward static stretching potentially doing more harm than good when it comes to strength and performance during the chosen activity.
Perhaps instead of static stretching as part of a warmup, the warmup should consist of a gradual progression of intensity that mimics the coming workout and elevates the body temperature. Static stretching does neither of these things as it does not mimic the workout movements, and typically does not increase body temperature due to the static nature.
Dynamic stretching can be a great alternative that increases the body temperature and increases blood flow to the muscles that you are about to use. Some of our favorites include squats, lunges, skips, inchworms, or anything that elevates the heart rate and targets the muscle groups about to be used.
#2: Stretching improves sport performance:
As we alluded to above, studies have shown that static stretching can decrease performance, especially when it comes to power, strength, and speed. It’s unclear what exactly contributes to this decreased production of power and strength.
This is not to say that stretching cannot be helpful at other times during the day, but it may be best to find time other than right before a workout or activity in which performance is important to you.
#3: Stretching makes muscles longer:
This is a tricky one to debunk because it seems to engrain in our brains – to get longer muscles we need to stretch more! As we learn more and more about the human body and how it functions, it appears that although there is an increase in range of motion with stretching, it is not due to an actual change in the muscle length! Rather, we see changes due to a neurological adaptation and improved tolerance to the tissues being placed on stretch. Simply put, our brain becomes more willing to move through a range of motion because it is less sensitive to that stretch; the muscle itself has not changed.
So, what to do instead of stretch?
At Mobility Innovated, we’re big fans of strength training! It’s a lot easier to create changes through tissues via resistance training than static stretches. Of course – just like anything of benefit – strength training requires time and consistency; however, the payoff is far greater than stretching, plus you get stronger while doing it! The effects of resistance training have been researched extensively, and its effectiveness proven. Stretching lacks this evidence to back it up.
An example of an exercise that works on both strength and length is the RDL, or Romanian Deadlift. If you’re unfamiliar, this exercise involves a hinge at the hips while keeping knees as straight as possible. This movement takes the hamstrings through their full range for a lot of folks, moving through an ‘eccentrically’ controlled range of motion. This movement simulates a passive stretch of the hamstrings as if you were touching your toes, while at the same time requiring the muscle fibers to adapt to the added load of strength training.
All this to say, it’s not BAD to stretch:
If stretching feels good to you, go for it! We’re all about making sure you feel great and enjoy what you’re doing when it comes to exercise and movement. With static stretching, you may see a slight increase in joint range of motion, but it’s important to recognize that this will be transient; and that perceived tightness of a muscle is likely just weakness of the muscle. “Most stiffness is a sensation, a symptom, a kind of mild pain with movement rather than an actual limitation of movement” (Ingraham 2020).
You know your body better than anyone else, so if stretching makes you feel like you can move better, or relieves some soreness, do it! Stretching and modalities like myofascial release, foam rolling, etc. can still have their place in warmups, cooldowns, and for recovery.
Elle Carlson, PT, DPT