Spend any time on the Internet, and you’ll read how important stretching is.
You’ll read how weight training causes muscles to shorten, so they need to be stretched back to their proper length afterwards.
You’ll read how stretching lengthens muscles, ligaments and tendons.
You’ll read how we should focus more on flexibility (or “mobility”, if we want to make it sound cool and cutting edge).
Well, I’m calling BS because stretching may just be one of the biggest wastes of time out there.
After all, our time is the most precious resource we have, so why spend it on things that have little or no practical value?
Now I realize this may sound a bit heretical, so just humor me, OK?
First off, let’s slay one of stretching’s biggest myths.
What Stretching Doesn’t Do
Fortunately, stretching doesn’t lead to long-term increases in the length of your muscles, tendons or ligaments.
Why is that a good thing? Because our muscles have a fixed origin and insertion where tendon meets bone.
Check out the biceps in this image (ignore the blurb about “prime mover” and “synergist”).
So, the biceps originates at two places on the scapula (bi-ceps literally meaning “two heads”), and inserts at one place on the forearm.
Now, the origin and insertion points are fixed – rest assured, those suckers aren’t going anywhere without surgery.
But what if we were able to make the muscles and tendons permanently longer by stretching?
Well, for starters we’d end up with loose, floppy muscles that looked really weird (kind of like a 5-year old wearing 36-inch leg pants).
Plus they wouldn’t be terribly effective at supporting the skeleton and producing movement, which is pretty much the reason why we have muscles in the first place.
Put it this way, imagine your biceps were twice their current length (while keeping the same origin and insertion points).
You’d have a really hard time bushing your teeth, carrying groceries or driving a car, right?
And the guy in the image would spill his glass of invisible beer.
Bottom line: stretching doesn’t lead to a long-term increase in the length of muscles, tendons or ligaments.
What Stretching Is
OK, if that’s true, how the hell do we explain stuff like this?
Let’s face it, this dude is so flexible that it’s hard to take in what’s actually going on.
(To be honest, it took me a while to realize that he’s grabbing his right foot from behind his back!)
So, what’s the deal?
Well, our bodies have a mechanism that automatically contracts our muscles when it senses that they’re being exposed to too much tension.
So it’s basically a protective mechanism that’s outside our conscious control.
And that’s precisely what’s happening when the doc hits your patellar tendon with a small hammer.
The hammer creates a rapid rise in tension along the muscle that panics the nervous system and makes the quads fire into contraction to protect themselves from damage.
And there’s the secret to being flexible.
Stretching basically trains the nervous system to tolerate increased levels of muscular tension without this involuntary contraction kicking in (no pun intended).
Well, take a person with, say, tight hamstrings, put them under general anaesthetic, and you’ll see that their legs can be moved through a complete range of motion – no drama, no tightness.
Why? Because under a general anaesthetic, the nervous system is out of the game.
In a nutshell, people that can do extreme stretches (like the yoga guy) have conditioned their nervous system to remain calm and relaxed even under massive amounts of muscular tension.
That’s really all there is to it.
Is More Flexibility Always Better?
The idea that more flexibility is better has always seemed kind of odd to me, a bit like saying you need less tension in your guitar strings or less air in your tires.
Sure, that may be true if your guitar strings are tight or your tires are overinflated, but as a blanket statement it doesn’t make much sense, right?
A 1993 study by the U.S. Army investigated training-related injuries among young men undergoing Army infantry basic training.
Here’s the relationship they found between flexibility and the incidence of injury.
So, individuals at the extremes of flexibility (either very flexible or very inflexible) had more than double the injury rates of individuals with normal flexibility.
The take-home point being that greater flexibility doesn’t appear to protect against injury.
What About Stretching Pre- and Post-Workout?
Now, here in Japan stretching before, after, and even during sports and activities is the norm.
Probably for no other reason than that’s just the way things are and old habits die hard.
ER physician, martial artist, and strength coach, Dr Jonathon Sullivan makes this observation in his 2013 review of strength science.
…on balance the available literature on stretching for warmup or recovery does not indicate any benefit.
In fact, the best data we have strongly indicates that serious stretching to increase range of motion through acquisition of stretch tolerance makes you weaker.
He also makes a really important point that’s easily overlooked.
Basically, there’s a big difference “between range-of-motion exercises, which strengthen movement patterns within current boundaries of tissue extensibility, and stretching, which involves taking the joint range of motion to levels that increase tissue and joint forces beyond those normally available.”
In other words, your squat warm-up sets are a useful range-of-motion exercise, while trying to do the splits is stretching.
Finally, he delivers the sledgehammer blow from a paper that was published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal earlier that year:
Possibly the most heretical remark to make about stretching is to suggest that the dedicated use of stretching sessions may not even be necessary, especially since many athletes dispense entirely with special stretching or even warm up sessions before or after training without suffering injury in training or competition.
So don’t assume that a whole load of stretching is either necessary or productive.
Do You Need To Stretch?
Can you get into all the postures or positions required for daily activities, pastimes and sports?
If you can, then why do you need more flexibility than you already possess?
And if you can’t, stretching may not be a very time-efficient way to fix things, anyway.
Personal anecdote: Just one hour with a good massage therapist did more to release my tight left shoulder than years of stretching and foam rolling ever could.
Of course, if you enjoy stretching for its own sake and aren’t chasing anything beyond feeling calm and relaxed, that’s great.
But if you’re doing a training program using the “big four” exercises, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.
Not only will you be working the major joints through a full range of motion, you’ll be strengthening that range of motion, too.
So the bottom line is don’t automatically assume that you need to stretch or that more flexibility is always better.
And if someone starts preaching to you about the wholesale benefits of stretching, you may want to fire off this question.
“What does stretching actually achieve?”
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