“Flexibility has been researched for over 100 years. It’s track record is unimpressive, particularly when viewed in light of other components of physical fitness. Flexibility lacks predictive and concurrent validity value with meaningful health and performance outcomes. Consequently, it should be retired as a major component of fitness.” (Nuzzo, 2020)
What is classified as “stretching”? Stretching is taking tissues and placing them under a sustained hold for a period of time that varies depending on the intent. Over the last several years, there have been many varieties of stretching that have found their way into the gym. With any stretching tactic the result is the same, a slight increase in length of the muscle. But what’s the point?
It is a tale as old as time. Ever seen someone get out of their car to go for a run? They pop in their headphones, do a couple standing quad stretches, maybe a few walking hamstring reaches, then off they go on their merry way down the road. The intent is to be ready for the jog by priming the tissue for the task ahead but did this quick stretch routine actually provide any benefit to their workout? Or was it all out of habit?
People have been making false claims in the name of stretching for too long now. Time to debunk some myths.
Stretching isn’t a warm-up. A “warm-up” refers to readiness for activity. You cannot “warm-up” your body by pulling on it. You are much better off starting with a gentler version of the activity you are trying to accomplish and letting the metabolic activity of your body do its job. Walking before you run will cause muscle contraction, increase your body temperature, and get your blood flowing. The benefits of a solid warm-up include injury prevention and enhanced performance. The most studied and reviewed warm up regimen, The FIFA 11+, includes a variety of movements to prepare for physical activity such as strength, plyometrics and balance exercises. You’ll note that stretching is not included. (Kim, 2020)
Stretching doesn’t prevent soreness. “The evidence from randomized controlled trials suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.” (Herbert, 2011) The dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) remain part of the package when it comes to physical activity. The best way to avoid muscle soreness is to work into activity in a progressive and gentle fashion. But when push comes to shove, nothing can save you from the soreness of your first competition back on the pitch or day at the gym after an off-season. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing quite as satisfying either.
Stretching won’t prevent you from injury or help you recover from an injury. In 2005, The Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine published a review of the scientific evidence to date. The results showed “stretching has no effect in reducing injuries.” (Hart, 2005) Stretching pre and post workout seem to make no difference to the injury risk department. But you know what will? Strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments. What about injury recovery? Injury recovery comes with progressively managing load on the body. Gently preparing the body to load back to its original ability and then hopefully surpass that! The goal of many rehab processes is to protect and restore the range of motion in a joint. I will add one more time, joint mobility and stretching are not the same. Stretching is passive in nature, it is for the purpose of lengthening muscles, tendons, & ligaments. Mobility involves the nervous system; thus it is active. Mobility is related to joints moving through their natural range of motion.
We can all agree that stretching can increase flexibility. But are you a gymnast or ballet dancer? No? Then, how flexible is ideal? And does being flexible add any benefit for your health and wellbeing? If flexibility truly had a foundation in alignment with overall health and wellness, we would see much more correlation between the two. But flexibility does not necessarily equal function. People who are more flexible don’t have lower resting heart rates or cholesterol. People who are more flexible won’t run faster or lift heavier. The true question about mobility is: Can you learn control your body through the range of motion you do have? (Hargrove, 2019) Joint stability combined with strength to conduct full-range movement patterns will aid most fitness enthusiast more than striving to do the splits.
So, what’s the appeal? It feels good and it is what we are accustom to. Next time you are going to head out for a jog, maybe look around to see who is watching before you habitually grab your foot for your pre run quad stretch. Instead add a few hip openers, pogo hops, and cadence strides for preparation.
We hope that busting the myth, “When in doubt, stretch it out,” serves as a catalyst to practice critical thinking regarding the why’s and how’s behind the movements you practice and their purposes.
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Hargrove, T. (2019). Playing With Movement: How to Explore the Many Dimensions of Physical Health and Performance (Illustrated ed.). Better Movement.
Hart, L. (2005). Effect of Stretching on Sport Injury Risk: a Review. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 15(2), 113. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.jsm.0000151869.98555.67
Herbert, R. D., de Noronha, M., & Kamper, S. J. (2011). Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd004577.pub3
Kim, H., Lee, J., & Kim, J. (2020). The Impact of the FIFA 11+ Program on the Injury in Soccer Players: A Systematic Review. The Asian Journal of Kinesiology, 22(4), 55–61. https://doi.org/10.15758/ajk.2020.22.4.55
Nuzzo, J. L. (2020). Reply to Kruse: Comment on: “The Case for Retiring Flexibility as a Major Component of Physical Fitness.” Sports Medicine, 50(7), 1409–1411. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01290-z