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What You Need To Know About Stretching
There is a lot of confusing information about stretching out there on the internet. Does it help athletic performance? Does it harm athletic performance? Is there a right way to stretch? Is there a wrong way? Should you stretch at all? So many questions!
I was really excited to be contacted by a reporter from the Toronto Star a few weeks ago to talk about my approach to stretching. Since our discussion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why I use stretching in my practice. I definitely believe that stretching can be super helpful for many people. But its value will absolutely depend on what your goals are and on how you stretch. Here’s what you need to know.
One reason for all the confusion around stretching is that the value of stretching will depend on what your goals are.
Here are some goals you might want to achieve:
- Improve athletic performance
- Decrease risk of injury while playing a sport
- Increase range of motion
- Move parts of you that are under-moved
- Give your body more movement options
- Improve your body awareness and neurological connection between brain and body
Will stretching help you with these goals? Possibly! The effects that can be created from stretching are not yet fully understood scientifically. Plus, the technique, the frequency, the duration, the way you move all day and the amount of tension you use will all make a difference in the results you get.
With that caveat, let’s talk about each of these goals in turn.
Stretching and Athletic Performance
My core expertise is definitely not athletic performance – I focus on helping people move better in their daily lives. So I am relying mostly on the work of noted physiotherapist and researcher Greg Lehman for this and the next section.
Many of the studies about stretching are focused on whether it can improve athletic performance. And their results? Basically inconclusive.
Some studies show that static stretches held for more than 60 seconds and done before cycling or running will slightly decrease performance. Many studies show no change in performance. None show improvements. It’s hard to see why you’d bother stretching before a run given these results!
In contrast, studies of strength training programs for runners definitely show improvements.
So should you stretch before a run so you can perform better? From what I’ve read, I’d suggest skipping it and maybe considering a mobilizing warm up instead. Of course, I also don’t go for runs very much any more! If you want to perform better at another sport, then the answer is a solid maybe – I’d suggest looking at what top coaches and athletes do in your particular activity.
Can Stretching Decrease Your Risk of Injuries During Physical Activity?
It’s not entirely clear – many studies seem to show that stretching does not decrease your risk of injuries during physical activities. Meanwhile other authors cite studies that suggest that stretching can help prevent injuries after all. No wonder everyone is confused!
My personal opinion is that right now we don’t actually know. There just aren’t enough studies, and the ones that exist aren’t necessarily going to apply to your personal situation. As a hypothetical example, certain types of stretching might decrease injury risks before playing a sport that requires lots of movement in multiple planes, such as hockey. Meanwhile similar stretches might not decrease injury risk before an activity such as hiking. So where does that leave the hiker? Who knows!? And what if you don’t stretch for long enough?
Overall, it seems to me that pre-workout stretching isn’t likely to have a big impact on your risk of injury. You could consider an active warm up with some dynamic mobilization instead.
Stretching Can Move Parts Of You That Are Under-Moved
Even though we move ourselves around in space all the time, many parts of our bodies don’t actually get much movement input.
For example, by wearing shoes and walking mostly on flat and level ground, the tissues of our feet are seriously under-moved. Other parts that don’t move enough in most of us include the tissues of our shoulder joints, our upper backs and thoracic spines, and our cores. Meanwhile other parts get too much movement – our necks and the part of our spines where our ribs end, for instance.
The under-moved parts don’t get the same amount of blood flow, oxygen and waste removal as the parts that we do move regularly. So those cells can’t stay optimally healthy. In contrast, our over-moved parts get too much wear and tear.
When done right, stretching is an absolutely fabulous tool to find the bits of you that don’t move, and to give them some movement input. Because it is slow and careful, stretching can help you learn to stabilize your over-moved parts and bring some immediate blood, oxygen and waste removal goodness to your sticky bits.
The key here is to learn how to stretch the part you’re trying to load, and not to by-pass them by moving the way you normally do. This is one of the key elements of Restorative Exercise, the movement approach that I use the most in my teaching. We put you on a ‘grid’ so you can evaluate your own movement patterns and learn how to stop cheating and more effectively load the bits of you that rarely move.
Stretching To Increase Range Of Motion (Flexibility)
I’m not a big fan of increasing your range of motion for the sake of just having greater range. Range on its own doesn’t mean a lot – it’s more about why you want a greater range.
However, you can definitely examine your range of motion to tell how much any given part of you is able to participate in your movement.
For instance, stretching can help you discover how much range you have in your hamstrings. If this range is very limited, you may end up using your lower back more than your hips. Over time, this means that you’re likely to overload your lumbar spine and underload your hips. Not great for either of them. For this reason, I do think that it can be useful to increase your ROM in parts with limited range.
Then the question changes to ‘how can you increase your range’? You can use something like PNF stretching to create an immediate change in your range of motion. However, this is a temporary change in your neurology – your brain will allow greater movement around a joint.
To create longer lasting change, you’ll usually get better results using a mix of strategies including high frequencies, eccentric loading and resistance stretching. And to get better at these techniques, static stretching done well – the classic type where you hold a muscle in a lengthened position, stabilizing other parts, and not stretching too far – is a really useful tool. That’s why I’m doing a calf stretch right now as I’m typing this. High frequency, stable and moderate static stretch and eccentric load. Boom!
Stretching Can Give You More Movement Options
Once you’ve increased your range of motion with some careful stretching, you’ll be able to access more tissues when you move.
For instance, if you’ve lengthened your calves, hamstrings, and hip flexors, you have more potential to go into hip extension when you walk. This decreases the loads on your overused lower back and knees, and increases loads for your underused glutes and hamstrings.
Here, we’re using stretching to create a change in your range of motion that then changes the way you move. This can help you change your walking technique and in the long term, reduce your chances of chronic injuries.
However, to get the most improvement for your walking, you’ll need to combine stretching with walking (ideally over natural surfaces), strengthening your glutes and lateral hips, and strengthening and mobilizing your feet and shoulders.
So it’s not only about stretching if you want to create major and long lasting body and movement technique changes. But it is a key tool to help you get there!
Stretching Can Improve Your Body Awareness
One of the reasons that many of us are poor movers is simply that our brains are a bit disconnected from our bodies.
Try this. Take a look at your feet and try to lift only the middle toe on your right foot. Did it move? Or did all your toes move? Maybe some of them and not others?
If you are not able to isolate this single toe (and you’re not alone – I haven’t met anyone that can), it’s a sign that you have lost your neurological connection with a significant part of your body – your toes. That means less blood, less oxygen, and more chance of injury and disease. Any wonder that foot issues are so widespread?
Many of us have multiple movement blind spots – it’s not just our toes. In my body, my mid-back is very immobile. It doesn’t feel painful – how can it, without being well-connected to my brain!? But the lack of movement in my spine forces the rest of my body to compensate. As a result, some parts of me are moving too much and other parts aren’t moving enough. One of my main movement goals right now is to get my spinal mobility to be more evenly distributed.
The trouble with trying to move your blind spots is that you can’t feel them. It’s very hard to move bits you can’t feel!
Which is where stretching comes in. Because if you work carefully, stretching will help you feel all your bits. You’ll gain better body awareness. Once you’ve improved your body awareness you’ll be able to start moving your sticky spots more and they’ll become less sticky. You’ll also be more able to stabilize your overly mobile spots, so it’s a win-win.
As you become more body aware via stretching, you will be more sensitive to the feedback your body is giving you in any given stretch. Instead of just feeling it when you do a big giant elastic stretch, you will become better at recognizing the point where you’re starting to feel tension in a muscle. Once you can do that, you can use the stretch to help you consciously let go of tension and create longer lasting changes in the range of the affected muscles.
So, How Should You Be Stretching?
Although there’s lots of confusion around stretching, there are also clear benefits to having a good balance of mobility and stability in your body. Too much of either and you’re limited, which means you’re more prone to injury over time. So, if you want to stay healthier longer, gain more body awareness, range of motion, ability to move more of your parts and general motor control and ability, you should definitely make stretching and other mobility work part of your movement life. Here are some good guidelines to follow.
#1 – Avoid your end range
Don’t go as hard as possible, this will tend to make your nervous system freak out and you won’t make as much change as you want. Or you’ll stretch out your ligaments and connective tissue instead of your muscles and you’ll have a new issue to deal with.
#2 – Use a variety of stretching techniques
Passive stretching, static stretching, dynamic stretching and resistance stretching all load your tissues and tell them that you want more from your body. Explore them all and learn from each of them.
#3 – Learn how to create specific loads by stabilizing as you stretch
Otherwise you’re going to think you’re stretching your hamstrings while you’re really loading your back and that won’t be awesome. Or you’ll lift your whole shoulder blade when you’re trying to move only at your shoulder joint. Not sure how to stabilize? That’s what I’m here to help you with!
#4 – Embrace frequency
Lots of gentle 30-60 second stretches done throughout your day will help you make more permanent adaptations faster. And they’ll help give your tissues some healthy blood and oxygen flow too.
#5 – Learn how to release tension as well as how to stretch.
Learning how to release tension is what lets you leverage the power of your brain to change your range of motion. My favourite release, that nearly everyone needs, is this psoas release (the psoas release is a starting place – eventually you’ll get better and better at releasing tension throughout your body). Enjoy!
#6 Don’t Just Stretch – You Need All Types Of Movement
Walking, squatting and hanging are all movements your body needs daily. You probably need some rolling, twisting, crawling, jumping, sprinting, balancing and carrying on a regular basis too. Stretching can help you get better at these but they should all be a part of your movement life for the most health-nourishing results.
Want to learn more about how stretching actually works? Here’s a great article from Brooke Thomas of the Liberated Body.
Here’s A Gift To Get You Started
Ready to start adding smarter stretching to your life? I’d suggest you begin with a daily ‘Movement Nutrients’ practice. This is a great foundation for better movement that everyone can benefit from. It uses a combination of static stretching, body weight strengthening, mobilizing and eccentric lengthening exercises to help your body move better and feel better. I’ve put it all together in to a handy little download, or you can check it out on the blog.
I hope this article helps clear up your questions about stretching – let me know in the comments below!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body – and she’s always happy to chat about it. When she’s not teaching, you’ll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.