Should You Stretch?

It used to be that people were told to do static stretching before and after working out in order to prevent injury and aide  recovery. Eventually, the powers that be realized that static stretching actually didn’t do anything to prevent injury, and that a dynamic warmup was actually the proper way to begin a workout session. However, static stretching was still regarded as an important component of post-workout recovery.

I personally only static stretch very rarely, and then it’s only my hips before I’m on my way. But I see people every day spending 20+ minutes at the gym, stretching before and after workouts, and I see it at work as well. We’ve conditioned many of our teams to utilize a dynamic warm up, but many of them still participate in a group static stretch following practice. If you ask some of our coaches, they’ll tell you that they have their team do it to “help recovery and decrease soreness”. But is it really doing anything?

Stretching DogOr is it?

Are you really going to help your muscles recover faster if you attempt to lengthen them after a training session? I recently read an article from the Strength And Conditioning Journal (NSCA) which was a review of several different studies on the topic of stretching as it relates to recovery. The findings of this review didn’t surprise me at all, but I did think they were worthy of sharing with you all, considering the prevalence of stretching in the fitness world.

Before we get to the information in the article, let’s think about this fundamentally. At the most basic level, you spend your workout performing repetitive contractions. Concentric (muscle shortening) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) contractions are the components of almost every exercise. Take, for example, the back squat. While lowering the weight into squat position, your quads are performing an eccentric contraction (they are lengthening while contracting), and on your way back up to standing, they are going through a concentric contraction (shortening while contracting). These two types of contractions happen over and over again, until you finish your sets.

During this time (if you’re working hard enough), you are creating tiny micro tears in your muscle fibers. Repairing these micro tears is the crux of recovery, along with providing your muscles with the proper fuel to aide this process and recoup energy stores.  So how is it that we expect stretching these muscle fibers in attempt to lengthen them to help with this process?

Just a little food for thought. But I digress.  Back to the article.

At it’s most basic level, the main objective of stretching no matter who you ask, is to improve functional range of motion and to reduce DOMS, or post exercise soreness. Based on the information that the authors gathered here, however, static stretching has not been shown in the literature to provide much relief when it comes to post workout soreness, nor has it been shown to help in recovery. In fact, it has been shown through several studies that post-exercise stretching decreased muscle soreness by only 1 point on a 100 point scale in the 1-3 days following exercise.

While that one point could be “statistically significant” in research terms, it doesn’t seem to me like spending 20 minutes stretching after a workout is worth it for a 1% reduction in soreness. Would that even be noticeable?

If stretching doesn’t prevent injury and it doesn’t relive post exercise soreness, it really begs the question…

So why do most people stretch in the first place?

Well, we said before that most people stretch to increase range of motion, decrease soreness, and decrease stiffness. But in all actuality, any effects of stretching are short lived, as it has been shown that we can not actually lengthen the muscles by static stretching. We can improve our joint range of motion through dynamic mobility exercises, but permanent lengthening of our muscle fibers? Not so much.

I know some people are going to wonder why everyone stretches then, if it’s not even effective. My only answer to that is that just because something is common practice, that doesn’t make it the correct practice. People also spend hours doing abdominal crunches, which I think are totally bogus, but that’s another post for another time.

So if stretching is no good, should you just head out the door as soon as your workout is over?

Plain and simple, no. Static stretching is not necessarily helping you any, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help yourself with recovery in other ways. The authors of this article do suggest light, pain free activity with little resistance. This could mean repeating your dynamic workout at the end of your training session, along with some more specific mobility drills for areas that you know you need work on. Foam rolling and self myofascial release are additional components that you can add in, depending on your needs. They also suggest that an active recovery day, such as light exercise followed by dynamic mobility work could provide better recovery between sessions than a day off.  Rest days don’t have to mean sedentary days, but static stretching on those days won’t help you either. Light, dynamic activity seems to be the way to go, and I can vouch for that through personal, anecdotal evidence.

And let’s just forget all of that nonsense that some people state about stretching “removing lactic acid” from the muscles. No. It. Does. Not. Again, another post in itself.

For those of you who would like some more specific ideas about what to do instead of stretching, I will probably do a follow up post soon with some ideas for mobility and dynamic warmups that you can include both at the beginning and end of workouts.

Readers: Do you stretch before/after workouts? Do you include a dynamic warm up in your training sessions? Would you be interested in a post on my dynamic workout and/or mobility techniques?

Sources:

Sands WA et al. Stretching and Its Effects On Recovery. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 35:30-36, 2013.

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8 thoughts on “Should You Stretch?

  1. My warm up generally consists of leg swings, butt kicks, scissor kicks to my hands, and then with my arms windmill forward/ back, and some jump jacks. I stopped stretching out of laziness, then when I was doing Jillian Michaels 30-day she had this dynamic warm up and I was like DAMN I love this. I’m an epic fail at stretching after I work out, if its cardio I’ll walk it out to get my heart rate to norm, then I shower or sit in the sauna.

  2. I’m so happy you posted this!
    I don’t stretch very often after (and never before) my workouts. When I warm up before I usually do something like jogging or air squats. Additionally, I very rarely stretch after my workouts (because it tends to be very time-consuming), but when I do, I do it because I enjoy the way it feels. It’s very relaxing.

    But I have often wondered if maybe I’m not stretching enough, or how important it really is, so this was a great read for me!

  3. I do dynamic stretching before hand. I don’t always stretch after I work out. But after I get done with a long dance rehearsal I do. I also am a practitioner of yoga. I think the benefits of stretching honestly out weigh the cons. You need to warm up and do dynamic movements before you workout to help decrease chance of injury and tell your body “Hey, I am getting ready to move”. Also, people need to keep a full and healthy ROM. If not properly using those muscles and stretching them, individuals then end up with tight muscles or injuries. For example, the first one that comes to my mind is frozen shoulder. People should approach stretching as not a “lengthening” workout and a way to aid in recovery, but a way to help prevent injuries, decrease stress, and something that needs to done routinely. Of course the effects of stretching could be short lived if someone only stretches one day a week. It is recommended (I believe from ACSM) usually two to three days of stretching. I remember even reading an article in college that dynamic stretches actually increase ROM better than static. I like PNF stretching the best though, and that has a lot of research to back it up. PNF feels so good. I love the resistance. As a dancer I feel as if PNF is the best for that sport. Nice article and nice use of NSCA. That is a great publication.

  4. I do some dynamic stretching before I lift, and I started incorporating dynamic stretches into my warm-ups before running. However, I can’t seem to let go of the static stretches. Whenever I run without doing them, my legs never feel as good as if I do them. I just don’t feel like I can run as loosely without it.

    And post-run stretching just feels soooo good. It would be hard to give that up either.

  5. I generally don’t stretch before a workout, and afterwards it honestly depends on if I have time. If I have time, or really want to procrastinate going back to studying/school/or work, I will do a long stretch after a workout, mostly for the relaxation side of it and for some specific imbalances I have. My body definitely reminds me if I don’t pay attention to certain stretches enough. I fully agree that stretching to remove lactic acid, prevent DOMS, injury, or to quicken recovery is questionable at best- but I also think stretching has a place for certain people, and for sure is important for those rehabbing or with known imbalances! It’s also just helped me a lot with chilling out and not rushing through my day (thats more of the yoga side of things too).

  6. Stretching in relation to working out, I agree on what you’ve posted here as I’ve read the studies myself. Dynamic workouts are the best, particularly a 30-40 minute moderate cardio session. However, when it comes to chronic pain conditions, stretching is one of the most beneficial things to do. Ideally, stretching is best for persons that simply are not moving enough during the day, whether tied to their desk or long periods of driving. Low activity leads to stiffened joints and shortened muscles that ‘get used’ to these immobile positions. Most daily and chronic aches and pains that your average person gripes about, are easily alleviated with regular strething. All it takes is 10-15 minutes a day. I recommend Yoga to all my clients as it stretches and isometrically strengthens. Two birds with one stone!

  7. Good post. Nice research. We, in our dojo, rarely perform static stretching. It is usually 10 to 15 minutes of warm ups, followed by dynamic stretching and then exercises. And, we never do post work out stretches. As you said, 1% of reduction in soreness doesn’t make much of a difference.

  8. Great post and at a great time- I was talking with a mate of mine about stretching the other day, we both literally do several warm up sets for squats then go straight in. I don’t stretch after a workout, but I do a ‘cool down’ (aka check twitter and instagram) on the bike for 10 -15 minutes. I’d love a post on what you do regarding stretching!

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