The Value of Stretching

The Value of Stretching

What if I told you that stretching isn’t “good for you”? I can just imagine the raised eye-brows. Now that I’ve got your attention, I hope you’ll read on to allow me to explain myself.

I was raised by an ex-national level gymnast, so I grew up believing that flexibility is important to health. It was a visible metric that I could feel comfortable with, and our current fitness culture supports and perpetuates the belief that stretching is good for you. However, there is nothing intrinsically valuable about stretching, and it can even predispose you to injury, or perpetuate nagging chronic injuries, if you’re not clear on why, and where you’re doing it.

When I was in college, one of my teachers told me that he didn’t stretch at all. I was gobsmacked. I was immediately, and profoundly conflicted, because this was an individual who is well educated, well respected in the community, and clearly knew what he was talking about. That conversation left me wrestling with my beliefs. There’s that word again: belief. Let’s examine those commonly held beliefs, to see if they truly stand up to criticism when confronted with a little bit of evidence.

First, we need to define some terms:

Flexibility: The total range the joint is capable of going through. This is not the range you can take it through yourself. This is the range that I can passively take you through, which is a little further than your own muscles can take you (about 10-20% more).
Mobility (range of motion): The total range that you, yourself can actively take the joint through, with strength and control.
Stiffness: How much force it takes to achieve a tissue change.
Shortness: The total length of a tissue that might be short or long.
Tightness: The subjective term used, when patients tell me that they feel “tight”. This can easily be confused with short. Tight and short are not the same thing.

Ok, what is stretching? Stretching can be defined as applying a stress to a tissue, in a linear, bending or helical fashion, in order to cause a desired lengthening. But does it lengthen?
What you might perceive as a change in your range of motion, can easily be confused with a change in tissue length. The change in range of motion may be transient (elastic) or permanent (plastic). Transient changes are most likely what most people are experiencing when they do their stretches to alleviate their tight muscles. Are their muscles feeling tight, or are they stiff, or short? If you stretch your hamstrings, right now, and hold the stretch for ten minutes, all of the change in tissue length will be gone in about eight and a half minutes.

What do you think you’re stretching?

Muscle tissue can stretch a bit, but not as much as you might think. Ligaments, tendons, and fascia do not stretch, they break. They will lengthen a bit, but not much at all. That kind of tissue is made to resist stretch. It has a stretch capacity of about 2-5% (depending on what tissue, specifically you’re referring to). In a later post about IT band syndrome, specifically, I will explain why you (and your manual therapist) can not stretch your “tight” IT band. It’s impossible, and even if you could, you would damage it irreversibly, so it’s time to look somewhere else for the problem causing the symptom, because it’s not IT band tightness.

People may also stretch to help their sporting performance. But does it help?

Research is pretty clear on this one. Static stretching (the kind where you hold a stretch for 20, 30, or 60 seconds) will decrease the amount of force a muscle can generate, and also increase your risk of injury. People in the know have swapped pre-event stretching for a 5 minute warm up, including gently, and progressively adding range to their active movements. It’s really just moving your muscles and joints around a lot, and lubricating them before you work out, or do your sport.

People may stretch because they feel stiff, and it gives them temporary relief, but is it helpful?
Stretching is a powerful stimulus to the nervous system, which kind of overrides some otherwise unpleasant sensations, like stiffness or tightness. How stretching is able to provide temporary relief of symptoms is easily seen when you stub your toe. What’s the first thing you do (besides cursing like a sailor)? You rub it! That rubbing (pressure and vibration) is an overwhelming stimulus to the nervous system, which temporarily overrides the pain you’re feeling. So, again, we might feel it necessary to ask, is stretching good for you when you feel stiff? Sometimes over-flexible joints have hypertoned muscles over top of them trying to limit the range of motion. When this area is stretched, it surely perpetuates dysfunction, and prolongs the problem, even if there’s temporary relief.

Is having more range of motion, or being more flexible a good thing?

Not necessarily. Consider the shocks on your car, if you’re mechanically inclined. If they are too stiff, you could damage your car, because it wouldn’t be able to absorb any shock, and all ground reaction forces would be directly transferred into the frame. What a bumpy ride! And, yes, you might break something. If your shocks are too loose (flexible), on the other hand, you won’t get any power transfer from the friction of the tires on the road, to the body of the car, so you can accelerate. You also increase the risk for hurting the shocks themselves.

Muscles have a “sweet spot” or a range that is preferable for producing the most power. For some muscles, it’s in the midrange, and for others, it’s at the very end. That length:tension relationship can easily be altered, decreasing power output, and increasing your risk for injury by simply not understanding the physical requirements of the task at hand. For example, if a runner has tight hamstrings, I won’t do anything to lengthen them because they need those “springs” to be tight! If you were to bounce a deflated ball, how much height would you get? See where I’m going with this? It’s all about understanding the range that you require, or desire, and finely tuning your muscles in that range to get the best performance, increase resilience, and decrease the risk of injury at sport or play.

Take away messages

Feeling tight, doesn’t necessarily mean you should stretch. It can give relief, but may also perpetuate an underlying dysfunction. Please get an assessment from an excellent clinician to examine your actual range of motion, mobility, and flexibility needs.

Deep fascia doesn’t stretch, it breaks. Also, you can’t stretch your deep fascia (because it’s too strong), and even if you could, you would damage it forever, beyond repair.

Tissue deformation (stretching) is related to time (frequency and duration) of stretch, so
if you want to have a lasting change in your range of motion or flexibility, you must stretch very regularly (like, every day), but being flexible isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Changing your flexibility, or mobility may not be advisable for your functional tasks. Please seek the advice of a skilled clinician (RMT, PT, DC, OT or DO), so they can help you understand how much flexibility and mobility you need to get the highest performance out of your body. You may be surprised to find out that it might be to your benefit to stop static stretching entirely.

Now that running season approaches, consider coming in for a functional assessment, and/or a massage therapy treatment so I can help you individualize a plan that works for you, your body (which is a little different than anyone else’s), and your particular desires and demands.

Thank you,
Taylor Laviolette RMT