When Should I Stretch?

Many people upon feeling tightness, stiffness, or pain in an area think: “Tightness means I must need to stretch more!”And then proceed to spend 30 minutes stretching out their tight hamstrings. While stretching can feel great and cause some relief from pain and stiffness, it only serves as a temporary fix.


At Made 2 Move, our physical therapists see strength training as the best long term solution to tightness or pain in the body. What if that tightness you feel is your muscles trying to communicate that there is simply some weakness in that area? Below we will outline some of the myths surrounding stretching and what some solutions to commonly stiff, tight areas like the back, hips, and hamstrings.





Myth #1: You should stretch as part of your warm up.

Static stretching (holding stretches for extended periods of time) has been utilized in warmups for both general fitness and high level athletics for decades. As a part of the health and fitness community, our team at Made 2 Move has done some research on best times to perform static stretching, and we’ve found that (depending on the type of workout you’re doing) warmups may not be the best time.


Warm ups are a crucial part of one’s workout routine and as healthcare professionals, our Made 2 Move therapists want you to be at your best before heading into a challenging workout. Current research suggests that static stretching may do more harm than good prior to a strength or power focused workout.


So what is a better warmup alternative to static stretching? Painscience.com states, “The best way to prepare for any intense activity is just to start easy and steadily dial-up the intensity” (Ingraham 2020). Warmups should focus on 2 main areas: 1. mimicking and preparing for the workout ahead and 2. elevating the body temperature. Static stretching falls short in both of these arenas, as it does not mimic the workout and typically does not increase body temperature.


Dynamic stretching, as opposed to static, should be utilized in warmups as “it increases the suppleness of and blood flow to the muscles, raises body temperature, and enhances free, coordinated movement (Matthews et. al 2020). Movements like squats, lunges, skips, inchworms, or any exercise that elevates heart rate and targets the muscle groups of the upcoming workout are sufficient for a dynamic warm up. For more on dynamic warmups check out this post.

Myth #2: Stretching improves sports performance.

Actually, the literature is showing quite the opposite. Studies have shown decreased sports performance following static stretching, specifically in regards to power, strength, and speed. We’ve already linked one study that suggests that static stretching decreases sports performance… but below are a couple more just to make sure that horse is really dead.

  • A study of 17 male subjects had one group complete 10 minutes of quadriceps stretching prior to measuring squat jump height and found that the “acute bout of static stretching significantly reduced power and force development during squat jump” (La Torre et. al 2010). This points to the notion that sports performance is significantly lower in the stretched condition.

  • Another study displayed similar results. Twelve male team-sport athletes were given sprint repeats with a four minute recovery between each sprint. The group that participated in static stretching during the four minute recovery period displayed significantly lower sprint times than the group that did no stretching (Beckett et. al 2009).

The reduction in power, strength, and speed following static stretching could be due to a paralleled reduction in the contractile nature of muscles, but the exact mechanism is unclear. This is not to say that you can’t do some stretching right before bed or at other times to “loosen up” throughout the day. This research just suggests that when static stretching is performed prior to or intermixed with strength and power exercises, it will likely hinder performance.

Myth #3: Stretching “lengthens” muscles.

Here at Made 2 Move, we know that our hands do not have the power to “lengthen” muscles; we’d have to be as strong as the Incredible Hulk to do that. We do know that stretching has shown benefits in improving range of motion (ROM).“ However, this benefit was typically not due to physical changes in the muscle. Rather, the changes were due to a neurological adaptation in the form of improved stretch tolerance. Stretch tolerance can be described as “the maximum tolerable joint movement” (Blazevich et. al 2014). In simpler terms, stretch tolerance describes our brain’s willingness to move through a range of motion, not the physical muscle’s willingness.

While most research points to this sensory theory, or stretching as a tool that enhances the muscle’s tolerance to the tension of stretch, there has been some positive research supporting the mechanical theory, in which the muscular structure itself actually becomes more receptive to stretches. However, the study that supported the mechanical theory studied participants for eight weeks that held stretches for 7.5 minutes (Freitas et. al 2015).


Seven and a half minutes is just enough time to get in a few sets of deadlifts or squats at a moderate intensity! Both of which are a lot more fun than holding a static stretch for 7.5 minutes.


The alternative to stretching?

If you have been to a session at Made 2 Move, you know we are huge fans of STRENGTH TRAINING! It is much easier to alter the mechanical structure of a muscle through resistance training as opposed to holding stretches for extended periods of time. While strength training still requires consistent time and effort, the reward: work ratio is far greater for resistance training than it is for stretching. Plus, the effects of resistance training have been researched extensively and its effectiveness proven, whereas stretching has lackluster results at best.


Muscle breakdown is required for hypertrophy, or muscle growth, and only resistance training is capable of doing this. In addition to proper loading during strength training, working through end ranges of motion should also be emphasized. Dr. Jarod Hall builds on this concept by discussing how an RDL is not only a passive gain in ROM, but also an “active eccentrically controlled gain in ROM that stimulates restructuring of the sarcomeres of the hamstring to have a greater ability to tolerate load into that strengthening position.”


Essentially, Dr. Hall is highlighting that an RDL is a 2-for-1 movement in terms of its benefits. The two benefits would be that an RDL:

  1. Gives the passive stretching sensation through the hamstrings, similar to touching your toes.

  2. The RDL simultaneously STRENGTHENS those muscles. This also allows for mechanical adaptations of the muscle through the movement of moderate to heavy weights through extended ranges of motion.


So what is stretching good for?

If stretching feels good, do it! Here at Made 2 Move, we want you to feel great and move better. There may be a slight increase in joint range of motion following stretching but the same effect could likely be achieved through simple movements prescribed by our therapists because of increased blood flow to the area. “Most stiffness is a sensation, a symptom, a kind of mild pain with movement rather than an actual limitation of movement” (Ingraham 2020). Highlighted by Ingraham is the notion that, more often than not, tightness of a muscle is just weakness in a muscle.


Take home points:

  • Dynamic stretching is often better than static stretching when it comes to warm ups.

  • Static stretching, as a warmup or utilized between sets, may actually hinder our strength, power, and speed.

  • Few studies have shown moderate static stretching to alter the muscle itself. Most studies have found the positive effect of stretching to be due to neurological adaptations or the placebo effect.

  • Strength training is more advantageous for muscle adaptations than stretching.

  • Self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their ability to execute a task) plays a large role in any aspect of fitness performance. Stretching can still play a role if the athlete believes it to be beneficial to them in some way. This benefit could be in the form of ROM increase, soreness decrease, improved performance, or injury prevention


Whether due to the placebo effect or an actual neurological adaptation, if stretching makes you feel as if you can move better, or relieves soreness, than by all means, do it! At Made 2 Move, we recognize that our patients know their own bodies far better than we do. Stretching and myofascial release can still have their place in warmups, cooldowns, and as a recovery modality, if that is beneficial to you individually. It also may be beneficial to utilize stretching and foam rolling as a mental cooldown after a tough strength training session. Interested in seeing one of our physical therapists? We have 4 locations: Summerville, Downtown Charleston, West Ashley, and Daniel Island- all ready to help you get stronger! Reach out to frontdesk@made2movept.com today to set up an initial evaluation.




References


Beckett JR, Schneiker KT, Wallman KE, Dawson BT, Guelfi KJ. Effects of Static Stretching on Repeated Sprint and Change of Direction Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2009 Jan 5.


Blazevich AJ, Cannavan D, Waugh CM, Miller SC, Thorlund JB, Aagaard P, Kay AD. Range of motion, neuromechanical, and architectural adaptations to plantar flexor stretch training in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2014 Sep;117(5):452–62. PubMed #24947023


Hall, Jarod. Drjarodhalldpt. RDLs for Hamstrings. Instagram. Nick Tumminello. 28 September 2020.

Hutchinson, A. (2020, September 17). Does Stretching Alter Your Muscles or Your Brain? Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20860575/does-stretching-alter-your-muscles-or-your-brain/

Ingraham, P. updated Aug 7, 2. (2020, August 07). Quite a Stretch: Stretching Hype Debunked. Retrieved from https://www.painscience.com/articles/stretching.php

La Torre, Antonio et al. “Acute effects of static stretching on squat jump performance at different knee starting angles.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 24,3 (2010): 687-94. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c7b443

Matthews, M. (2020, January 30). The Science of Stretching: Stretching and Strength, Speed, and Muscle Growth. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://legionathletics.com/stretching-before-aerobic-exercise-or-weightlifting-yes-or-no/