This is not clickbait. The studies show that static stretching is not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, within the world of sport and fitness, you may be doing yourself more harm than good. Let me explain.
But of course, a quick disclaimer first. This is not an article to discourage stretching — it’s not going to kill you. There’s no doubt that it feels good, and some people will even convince you that it helps reduce ‘post-exercise tightness’. Even if there isn’t as much evidence to support the latter, by all means, stretch if it makes you feel like a million bucks.
My purpose here is to dismantle the myths around static stretching, bringing sunlight to the emerging reality that it may not be effective use of time. If you are going to stretch, do so because of the temporary satisfaction you feel, and not with a preconceived notion that you’ll be achieving any long term benefits.
Listed below are three reasons why static stretching is futile for (almost) everyone.
It’s time to drop the paradigm that a ten-minute ‘recovery stretch’ is necessary after every workout.
MYTH #1 — Static stretching reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness.
There is little proof to indicate that static stretching will reduce DOMS. In other words, stretching won’t alleviate the stiffness and discomfort felt in your muscles one to three days post activity.
One review study states that “Muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness.” Even if there is the tiniest benefit over a long term period of static stretching, the statistical evidence is so minimal that it is rendered practically useless. You’ll be better off foam rolling or going to see a RMT.
MYTH #2 — Static stretching lowers injury risk.
There is no scientific evidence to show that static stretching will have a preventive effect on injury. Even if it did improve muscle elasticity (which it rarely does), there’s no link to it reducing harm to your tissues.
If you’re committed to doing static stretching for prolonged periods at a painful threshold, then yes, you may experience increased flexibility. But even if you get there after a dedicated training regime, your gains are far more likely to be due to neural effects than muscle fiber adaptations. Yes, that’s right — static stretching rarely lengthens muscle tissue!
Interestingly, O’Sullivan et al. reveal that eccentric strength exercises, such as the Romanian deadlift (RDL), can achieve muscle lengthening. If you’re looking to increase flexibility, think strengthen over stretch!
I know it sounds backward, but this is because eccentric strengthening produces sarcomere genesis (a fundamental component of muscle tissue growth) that correlates to increased elasticity. In 2017, Timmins et al. outlined that flexibility gains from eccentric strengthening can be achieved in as little as 14 days with 3 sessions per week.
On speaking to a veteran Physiotherapist, he commented, “I rarely have someone stretch as a form of treatment. More often than not, loading a joint or tissue will be more productive than stretching it.”
Not only is static stretching relatively useless for the prevention of injury, but it’s also a poor modality for recovery from musculoskeletal impairments (in most cases).
If you’re tight to the point that it’s taking away from proper form, ditch your yoga mat and grab a barbell! If you have a reasonable range of motion, don’t worry about getting more flexible and focus on other activities instead.
MYTH #3 — Static stretching leads to beneficial training adaptations for sports like running.
If you look at some of the most elite distance runners, their bodies have adapted to increase elastic stiffness, NOT flexibility! Due to the biomechanical nature of the sport, enhanced tensile strength and robust connective tissues are what correlate to improved performance.
In one study, it was indicated that elite distance runners had 36% larger Achilles tendons than non-runners. This is because stiff, strong tissues are a functional adaptation for running, not a sign of poor training or muscle health.
Static stretching to achieve flexibility would be completely abandoning the fitness principle of specificity for running!
If tensile strength and rigidity are among the most beneficial traits for runners, why are we then looking to gain flexibility? When was the last time you were required to do the splits in a race?
Before moving on, please know that there are some populations in which static stretching is critical, such as stroke patients and those with other neuromuscular disorders. Additionally, older adults and those with severe range of motion deficits may experience benefits. For the rest of us, however, it may be time to throw this practice to the wayside and try something else.
Stretching that does work.
Although flexibility doesn’t translate well to sports like running, perhaps you want to be more flexible for other activities of life. Totally fair. Here are a couple of efficacious stretching options that have been backed by scientific evidence.
These are the movements that you may already be doing as an active warm-up. I’m talking about arms swings, open-the-gates, and all of those elaborate hops and skips that Usain Bolt does ever so eloquently.
Dynamic stretching is more functional for mobility and flexibility training as it’s active by nature. By stimulating your mechanical tissues, along with the cardiovascular and nervous system, you’ll be far more likely to reduce injury and have a better workout than if you utilized static stretching.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF is most commonly done with a partner, but can also be achieved on your own through the use of a strap or wall. The most basic form is to take your muscle to its ‘edge’, hold for ten seconds, contract that muscle for six seconds by pushing against resistance (in the form of a partner’s hand or a strap), and then relax and rest for 30 seconds. On the next rep, hold the passive portion of the stretch for 20–30 seconds.
The mechanism behind this version of PNF is called autogenic inhibition. This is the phenomenon that a stretch-contract-relax sequence will result in a neuromuscular effect that decreases muscle tension and elongates the tissue. This is effective because there is a resistance component to it all. I’ll say it again… strengthen over stretch.
Don’t be discouraged if you’ve been static stretching your whole life with the notion that you’ll be better off for it. I was there too until quite recently. If you still want to stretch after reading this, I don’t blame you. Sometimes it just feels damn good. Just know that the next time you’re holding a figure four pose, you probably won’t be doing yourself any long-term favours.