To Stretch or Not to Stretch, That is the Question
Updated: Oct 16, 2022
The Myths of Stretching:
Stretching will prevent injury
Stretching will enhance your performance
Stretching is always good
Beliefs behind stretching have gotten us struggling for many years, and the reason being is because recommendations keep changing from year to year and from professional to professional. As to this day, if we ask the average individual why and when should we stretch, the typical answer would be: before and after exercise in order to protect muscles from getting injured. Seems reasonable, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Indeed, stretching has been strongly promoted for years as a way to decrease the risk of injury, prevent muscle soreness and improve performance, but have we looked at the evidence behind this? For those who didn’t, here are some fun facts, based on the latest literature and evidence based practice:
According to a conducted systematic review and meta-analysis of 10 previous studies regarding stretching before or after athletic activity by researchers from the University of Sydney, conclusion was that stretching before exercise doesn't prevent post-exercise muscle soreness, and neither does it prevent overuse or acute sport injuries (Herbert & Noronha, 2012).
Additional research that looked at runners who stretched prior to a race and those that didn’t, showed that the group that didn’t stretch ran faster than those who did, hence the force production and power was decreased with stretching ( Buresh & Trehearn, 2009).
Furthermore, in 2012, researchers from the University of Zareg in Croatia reviewed 104 studies of people who only practiced static stretching as their warm-up and found that stretching reduced muscle strength by 5.5%.
Lastly, a randomly experimental trial conducted in 2013, looked at the time it took muscles to recover their strength post five minutes of static stretch and the results were that it takes close to ten minutes. In other words, conclusion being that passive stretch prior to activity is actually detrimental (Yishihisa et al., 2013).
After reading all this, you probably ask yourself, so why are we even told to stretch? It is important to acknowledge the difference between stretching and warming up. Unfortunately we tend to confuse these two terms quite often. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sport Studies, a warm up is the act of raising one’s core or body temperature via external means or exercise. That being said, in the context of exercise, it requires the performance of certain movements and the extraction of energy, rather than a passive act. Hence, the lack of knowledge with respect to certain terminology leads to the misinterpretation of warm up and stretching. Thus, after clarifying the above and digging further into the literature, a better clarification was that warm up prior to exercise is what prevents injury, whereas stretching has very poor effect on it (Fradkin et al., 2006).
Nevertheless, let’s not forget about stretching completely. The latest studies show that the benefits of stretching are still important and are appropriate for different reasons; such as increase joint range of motion, improves joint function and increase performance in ADLs and balance (Hong et al., 2012).
In summary, if injury prevention is our primary objective, the evidence suggests that athletes should limit the stretching before exercise and increase the warm up time, however to maintain good range and joint function stretching should be done regularly post physical activity.
Is stretching always good?
Stretching is NOT an activity that was meant to be painful; it should be pleasurable, relaxing and very beneficial. Although many people believe that to get the most from their stretching they need to be in constant pain. This is one of the greatest mistakes you can make when stretching. In other words, stretching is only good when you feel better during AND after the activity. You should never feel pain while stretching or after stretching. If that's the case STOP and consult a physiotherapist for an evaluation.
To prevent injuries and improve range of motion and joint function, one should warm up before the activity and stretch after.
Stretching should be pleasant, relaxing and pain free
If one is experiencing pain either during or after a stretch, cease the activity and consult a therapist.
Svetlana Marianer, MSc. Pht