To Stretch or Not to Stretch: That is the Question – Part I
Elephants need to stretch sometimes too
Welcome to March! It’s finally starting to get warm again, and spring training baseball is about to kickoff, so I’m all happy.
Speaking of happy, I hope the picture of the stretching elephant brightens up your Tuesday a bit. Over the next two weeks, I plan to dive into a discussion on stretching. Should you do it? When should you do it? How should you do it? These are all questions I aim to answer. Whether you love stretching or hate stretching, I think you’ll get something out of these next two posts. Enjoy!
Although I’m sure Shakespeare had no concern for whether or not you should stretch as part of your exercise program, I felt that “to stretch or not to stretch” was an appropriate title.
Stretching is a hot topic in the fitness world. There are some people who never stretch and don’t believe in it, and then there are those who stretch like it’s their job and say that you should too.
Who’s right? Well, over the course of the next two posts, I hope to answer that question, or at the very least expand your understanding of the topic.
In this week’s post I will overview the different types of stretching, and the pros and cons of each. Then next week, I will discuss if, when, and for whom stretching is a good or bad idea. I will also give some insight into how you can assess if you are a candidate for stretching, or if stretching will actually have a negative impact on your muscular health and performance.
Now, on to this week’s post!
Intro to Stretching
Stretching is one aspect of exercise that would seem to be tried and true. Everyone says you should stretch or you’ll become too tight and muscle-bound. Many say that they feel “tight” constantly and they need to stretch.
But is this really true? If you don’t stretch are you in danger of becoming too tight and stiff?
To answer that question for yourself, just ask someone who claims that they are always tight, if stretching regularly for the past ten years has loosened them up. Odds are, the answer is no. If it did, they wouldn’t still feel the need to stretch constantly.
Another proposed benefit to stretching, is that it decreases your risk of injury during exercise or activity. In the past, the health and fitness industry has put a large emphasis on this, proposing that if you don’t stretch regularly, your muscles and tendons will be less pliable and you will get injured.
Again, is this true? Does everybody need to stretch, or is stretching a bad idea for some people?
Let’s take a look.
The benefits of stretching are that it increases the range of motion and amount of flexibility available in a muscle, and helps prevent injury. The idea is that the more flexible and pliable the muscles and tendons are, the lower the chance of injury.
However, what is not as widely published is the fact that stretching in some contexts can actually promote injury. This largely depends upon the type of stretching being done, the person doing the stretching, and how that person is stretching.
In short, there are some people who should stretch. These are people who have a true lack of flexibility and range of motion, not just those who feel tight and stiff.
On the other hand, there are some people who would benefit by removing stretching from their program. These are people who may say that they are stiff, but when you test their flexibility they have more than enough range of motion. They also tend to have excessively lax or loose joints.
A good example of someone who probably doesn’t need much more flexibility
I will discuss this much more next week, but to jump ahead of myself a little bit, there is a reason why those with loose joints feel tight. They tend to make up for lax and unstable joints by laying down trigger points and creating excessive tension in the muscle. In other words, they have a lack of stability in the joint, which is made up for by the muscles. More on this later!
First, let’s talk about the various types of stretching, their benefits and drawbacks, and when each should be performed.
Types of Stretching
There are several common types of stretching:
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching (there’s a reason they shorten it to PNF…)
Static stretching is one of the more popular and long-standing forms of stretching. It uses slow, sustained muscle lengthening to increase range of motion and flexibility. This is the classic, sit down and stretch your hamstring for 3 sets of 30 seconds.
It can be done either passively, with a partner helping you, or actively, by holding a stretch yourself for a sustained period.
The benefits of static stretching include its ability to increase flexibility, its ease of use, and the fact that you typically don’t need a partner or fancy equipment to do it.
On the other hand, there are some downsides to static stretching.
First of all, despite what your middle school P.E. teacher told you, it is not a good idea to do static stretching prior to physical activity such as exercise or sporting events.
Advocates for static stretching as a warm-up say that it will decrease your risk of injury during activity. But this has no backing in the scientific research. In fact, in some cases it may even put you at a greater risk for injury during the activity.
On top of that, there is scientific evidence which demonstrates that static stretching before activity may decrease levels of strength and power. This is the case because the muscles and tendons rely on a certain level of stiffness in order to create what is called a stretch reflex during the stretch shortening cycle.
Basically, when a muscle is actively stretched during a movement, it stimulates receptors (called Muscle Spindle Fibers) in the muscle and tendon which say, “Hey, this muscle is getting stretched, we should contract the muscle to prevent it from becoming stretched so far that it tears.” As if Muscle Spindle Fibers actually talk, much less speak English. Psh.
But seriously, they do that. It’s one of your body’s built in mechanisms to prevent injury.
This same mechanism, along with kinetic energy stored in a stretched, elastic muscle, allows you to contract the muscle with greater strength and power. This is what you are training when you perform plyometric exercises.
The problem with static stretching prior to activity, especially if that activity involves the need for strong or powerful muscle contractions, is that it desensitizes the stretch reflex. This is great for allowing the muscle to stretch further, but not great for optimal muscle contraction.
Without the stretch reflex to help rapidly contract the muscles, you will be less strong and especially less powerful. You will also be at greater risk for injury because the protective mechanism that is the stretch reflex will be compromised.
In short, static stretching prior to exercise and sporting activities will decrease your ability to use the muscles for stability, strength, and power. It will make you weaker, slower, and more prone to injury. Nobody wants that!
One final downside to static stretching is that it doesn’t just stretch muscles and tendons. This is because tendons don’t just connect muscles to bones, they also connect muscles to joint capsules. This means that static stretching will also stretch the joint capsule, especially if it is taken to an extreme range of motion.
As I alluded to earlier, many people already have joints and ligaments in and around the joint capsule that are too loose. Stretching these, takes a loose, unstable joint, and makes it even more unstable. This is like adding gasoline to the fire that is unstable joints.
As I mentioned before, this forces the muscles and fascia around the joints to take on the job of providing extra stability, making a muscle feel stiff and tight chronically.
You know what that means? For someone who already has lax ligaments and unstable joints, static stretching to relieve tight muscles will have the opposite effect. It will force the muscles to become even tighter to make up for an increasingly unstable joint.
So, as you can see, there are some people who will benefit from static stretching, and some who will get worse from static stretching.
How will you know which is which? Look at how much flexibility and range of motion they already have. Assess, don’t just guess. If you aren’t sure how to do this, don’t worry, I’ll go over some methods for assessing next week.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
Admittedly, this one is a mouthful, and usually my go-to when I want to sound smart. This article isn’t designed to be a comprehensive overview of PNF stretching, so I’ll try not to go too in depth. But I do want to make you aware of it, and explain what it is.
Like the name says, PNF stretching relies on the neuromuscular mechanisms that I mentioned before when I was droning on about Muscle Spindle Fibers and other science-y things above. The same stretch reflex, as well as another structure in the tendons called the Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO) are utilized to increase the range of motion during a stretch.
Remember that the Muscle Spindle Fibers are receptors in the muscles that sense stretch and reflexively cause the muscles to contract to avoid tearing. Conversely, the GTO’s are also receptors which sense pressure changes in the muscles and tendons, and cause the muscles to reflexively relax under pressure, again to avoid injury.
In PNF stretching, you start by statically stretching the muscle as far as possible. Then, the same muscle being stretched is contracted as hard as possible against resistance, such as a partner, for about 5-10 seconds. After this the muscle is relaxed and is passively stretched by a partner past the point it was initially able to move.
This is possible because the static stretching serves to desensitize the Muscle Spindle Fibers, so the muscle won’t tighten up and prevent further stretching. At the same time, the maximal muscle contraction causes the GTO’s to relax the muscle since it is under a lot of pressure. All this put together equals a bigger stretch and increased range of motion.
There may be other methods besides just those neuromuscular responses that allow this method to be effective, but those are the main reasons that we know about.
Now, this kind of stretching is not as common because it does require a partner. It also can be dangerous, especially if the partner you choose doesn’t know what they’re doing and tries to push the muscle too far.
What happens when you don’t do PNF stretching correctly (it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a stethoscope)
But, this method of stretching has been shown to generally be more effective than most other types of stretching at increasing range of motion and flexibility. Because of this, it should be used by someone qualified to do so when they have a person who truly needs more flexibility.
Once again, you must be sure that the person you are performing this kind of stretching on is someone who actually needs more range of motion. This shouldn’t be something you do just for fun!
Also, the method I described above is not the only way that PNF stretching can be performed. If you are interested, you can search the internet or watch videos on YouTube for other methods of PNF stretching. Obviously, you would have nothing better to do with your time anyways.
I won’t spend too much time on this form of stretching, as it is pretty straightforward, and I’ve asked you to read a lot already! But this method of stretching is growing in popularity because it’s safe, effective, and a good fit for pretty much anybody.
Dynamic stretching works well as a warm-up because it progressively takes the muscles through bigger ranges of motion at a controlled pace without holding a stretch for a long period of time. An example of this would be repeated knee to chest stretches while standing, controlled leg kicks, or walking lunges.
The goal is to increase the ability of a muscle to move through the range of motion that is needed in the activity you are warming up for. It also serves to increase the elastic property of the muscle, because you are repeatedly lengthening and shortening the muscle, not just holding it in a stretched position. This increase in elasticity will decrease injury risk and increase performance.
One downside of dynamic stretching is that it doesn’t necessarily do the best job of increasing range of motion long term. While it works very well as a warm-up to get you the range of motion you need for that activity, if you have truly short, restricted muscles, you will need to consider one of the other methods mentioned above.
Ballistic stretching can be summed up in one short phrase: don’t do it. There you go.
But seriously, ballistic stretching is probably the most dangerous form of stretching a muscle. This is because it involves using momentum and rapid bouncing motions to increase the range of motion available in the muscle.
Pretty much every health or fitness professional will tell you that when you are stretching, bouncing is a bad idea. This increases the risk of producing tears and micro-trauma in the muscle, especially if you are trying to push it past its normal range of motion.
Many times, ballistic stretching looks similar to dynamic stretching. The only difference is that instead of being slow and controlled, with a gradual increase in range of motion, the muscle is rapidly forced to its end range of motion. In addition to being tough on the muscles and tendons, joints typically don’t like to withstand this bouncing motion, and they tend to take the brunt of ballistic stretching.
Some examples of ballistic stretching would be rapid and uncontrolled leg kicks to the end range of motion, arm swings that put a lot of torque on the shoulder joints, and bent over hamstring stretches where you bounce up and down at the bottom of the stretch.
As you can imagine, this is not only dangerous but also counterproductive. The Muscle Spindle Fibers, which I keep bringing up, when sensing a rapid stretch in the muscle, will reflexively tighten the muscle. Thus, you are not going to loosen up the muscles, instead you will cause the muscles to contract to avoid injury.
Wrapping it up
I think it is about time to wrap up part 1 of my discussion on stretching. Hopefully, you understand a little more about stretching now, but don’t worry I’m not done yet! Stay tuned for part 2 next week, where I will discuss some strategies for assessing whether or not you need to stretch, as well as some alternatives to stretching that will decrease stiffness and tone in the muscles.
To summarize the main points:
Before you just start stretching all the time, you need to decide whether or not you actually need to stretch. If you do, static or PNF stretching may be helpful.
If not, controlled dynamic stretching is still useful as a warm-up, but doing a ton of extra stretching may put you at a greater risk of injury.
As always, if you like what you’re reading, or know someone who might like it, please share! If you want to get part 2 next week, and many more articles to come, make sure you are subscribed to the email list.
See you next week for part 2!