Stretching is Overrated: Quick Hits

Remember when the ole' ball coach had your team doing ten-count static stretches before each competition? It was a bold strategy, we're still waiting to see if pays off.

Here's the bottom the line, stretching is overrated. Plain and simple. It doesn’t prevent injury(6,14,15). It doesn’t prevent soreness(3,7). It doesn’t warm you up(5,10). And most importantly, it sure as hell doesn’t empower your performance(1,4,13). This is why you won’t find a section on it in the Power Athlete Methodology. We cut out the bullshit to provide you with the most evidence based principles in strength and conditioning -ing -ing...and that includes recovery.

Why, then, do so many people, athletes included, still waste their time getting their Gumby on? Simply put, most don’t understand the difference between marketing and science.

We’ve been told our whole life that stretching is the panacea of health and performance. Combine this with the IG culture that encourages us to place all of our trust in “authority figures” who dispel a false ethos in the hopes of gaining new followers and selling a product, and it’s no surprise people are enamored with the idea of stretching as the key to reaching their next level of performance.

Now, stretching isn’t terrible for you. In fact, it truly does feel good for a lot of people, and may temporarily provide you with a sense of relief after strenuous activity(2,5,9). However, it isn’t the most optimal, efficient, or effective method of enhancing performance, driving accelerated adaptations, or speeding up recovery(3). Also, stretching is passive and easy! It takes no effort to lay around, bullshit with others, and scroll through our news feed while sitting in the splits.

True progress, and long term positive outcomes, are achieved through consistency and hard work. We need to stress to progress! Nothing worthwhile in this life comes easy, yet we’ve still become complacent in something that, quite frankly, is controversial at best. Complacency breeds mediocrity, and here at PAHQ it is our mission to destroy mediocrity.

When in comes to stretching, here are the key things you need to know and questions you need to ask yourself:

Why Do I Feel Tight in the First Place?

Your body isn’t tight; your mind is stiff. The perception of tightness is neurological, and feeling stiff is more likely a sensation, or perception, of limited range of motion and movement, rather than an actual physical limitation. If you feel more flexible after stretching, it’s because your brain has improved its tolerance for the discomfort of elongating your muscles. They didn’t get longer; your brain just tricked you.(2)

I Have an Itch I Need to Scratch!

This is the “it feels good” phenomena. Stretching releases chemicals in the brain, similar to the feeling of a runner’s high. Because of this, It may give a temporary relief of discomfort. People stretch because they may feel it will prevent, or cure, their pain...which just isn’t true. In fact, anything that “feels good” is technically releasing some kind of “feel good hormone” like endorphins, oxytocin, or opioids. Think about some other things that feel good in life. Ice cream, Power of Love on the radio, and crushing a new PR. Even sex feels amazing, but it won’t cure your back pain.

What are you Planning to do with all your Flexibility?

Context is the keystone. Do you want to be a gymnast or ballerina? If so, go hog wild on the stretching. Years of prolonged low load stretching will do wonders for you - making your static structures (ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules) more pliable (and less able to handle load). However, if you want to bang heavy weights, or run over your opponents on the field, reconsider the whole stretching thing…

The amount of effort put into a stretching routine does not reap a great reward and he amount of time and energy investment needed to produce a worthwhile adaptation isn’t necessarily purposeful or prudent for most Power Athletes.

Stretching to Win? Nope, You are a Loser

Just like fitness and health are not equivalent, greater flexibility doesn’t mean you are a better athlete. In reality, it’s actually the opposite for most individuals. Increased flexibility often comes with the cost of lost joint stability. Hyper-mobility can be dangerously dysfunctional; more lax joints without stability or control lead to a greater incidence of injury. Active warm ups, like our Dynamic Movement Prep Series, do a much better job at actually facilitating muscle contraction, preparing you for training, and stimulating a positive effect on muscle function.

What About all of my Knots and Trigger Points?

These are very small areas of contracted muscle fibers, or tiny little “spasms.” Sorry, your favorite lacrosse ball or foam roller won't work. However, here’s a list of what you will need to be successful: Scissors, pliers, and a shot of Bacardi 151. That's right, it will take a lot more than a pressure tool and some stretching to work these out. Think of these knots like a bungee cord; all you are doing is stretching the cord on either side of knot - making tendons weaker and pissing off your nerves.

But, I’m Always Hurt! I Need to Stretch!

A review of the scientific literature to date shows that stretching had no effect on reducing injury risk. In fact, you are likely making things worse by stretching! Sprains and strains are a frequent result of over-stretching, and are fairly common in yoga, dance, martial arts, and so on. If you feel that always need to stretch, you should invest time into learning how to move better and control what joint range of motion you do have. Don’t just lift more; move weight better!

Training with intention, through good movement patterns, creates a eustress that will improve your range of motion and mobility over time. It will also teach you to properly reduce force in the body, which is more predictive of injury than stretching.

Master Your Movement: Conceptualize and Prioritize

Think about stretching in the grand scheme of things. Even an extremely strong stretch - one that makes you agonize in pain - to a muscle or tendon represents a drop in the bucket to your overall training plan. This brief, innocuous stimulus is minuscule relative to the context of the whole day, week, month, or cycle, where the amount of load and stimuli are much greater and making a larger impact.

In the end, the benefits of stretching and increased flexibility are ultimately unknown. If you enjoy it, have time for it, and aren’t doing it right before training or big game, keep doing it. If you don’t like it, there is no evidence that you are missing any benefit, and you can utilize that free time for other things. Bottom line is that the best way to improve your range of motion is to train with good posture and position under load, and practice your sport.

Unless, of course, your sole purpose in life is becoming a level 99 supple leopard, impressing the ladies in yoga, or mastering every page of the Kama Sutra. However, if you want to make a wiser investment with the time and energy you have, optimize your warm up, train under load through a full range of motion, and prioritize your sleep for improved performance, reduced risk of injury, and enhanced recovery.

Related Content:

  1. BLOG: Tendinitis - Where do I Begin? by Dr. Matt Zanis
  2. BLOG: Unlocking Stress: Training Smarter not Harder by Dr. Matt Zanis
  3. PROGRAMMING: Dynamic Movement Prep Series 1 by John Welbourn

Sources:

  1. Behm DG, Chaouachi A. A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011;111(11):2633–2651. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-1879-2.
  2. Blazevich AJ, Cannavan D, Waugh CM, et al. Range of motion, neuromechanical, and architectural adaptations to plantar flexor stretch training in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2014;117(5):452–462. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00204.2014.
  3. Ce E, Limonta E, Maggioni MA, Rampichini S, Veicsteinas A, Esposito F. Stretching and deep and superficial massage do not influence blood lactate levels after heavy-intensity cycle exercise. J Sports Sci. 2013;31(8):856–866. doi:10.1080/02640414.2012.753158.
  4. Fletcher IM, Anness R. The acute effects of combined static and dynamic stretch protocols on fifty-meter sprint performance in track-and-field athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(3):784–787. doi:10.1519/R-19475.1.
  5. Konrad A, Tilp M. Increased range of motion after static stretching is not due to changes in muscle and tendon structures. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014;29(6):636–642. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2014.04.013.
  6. Hart L. Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: a review. Clin J Sport Med. 2005;15(2):113.
  7. Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD004577. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3.
  8. Magnusson SP. Passive properties of human skeletal muscle during stretch maneuvers. A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1998;8(2):65–77.
  9. Marshall PWM, Cashman A, Cheema BS. A randomized controlled trial for the effect of passive stretching on measures of hamstring extensibility, passive stiffness, strength, and stretch tolerance. J Sci Med Sport. 2011;14(6):535–540. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2011.05.003.
  10. Moreside JM, McGill SM. Improvements in hip flexibility do not transfer to mobility in functional movement patterns. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(10):2635–2643. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318295d521.
  11. Morton SK, Whitehead JR, Brinkert RH, Caine DJ. Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(12):3391–3398. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31821624aa.
  12. Harvey L, Herbert R, Crosbie J. Does stretching induce lasting increases in joint ROM? A systematic review. Physiother Res Int. 2002;7(1):1–13.
  13. Rubini EC, Costa ALL, Gomes PSC. The effects of stretching on strength performance. Sports Med. 2007;37(3):213–224.
  14. Shrier I. Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clin J Sport Med. 1999;9(4):221–227.
  15. Thacker SB, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CDJ. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(3):371–378.
  16. Weppler CH, Magnusson SP. Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation? Phys Ther. 2010;90(3):438–449. doi:10.2522/ptj.20090012.

Matthew Zanis

Power Athlete Block One Coach at Power Athlete
PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS Former baseball catcher and an avid outdoorsman. Worked with Division 1 basketball, football, and track and field at the University of Pittsburgh, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Cardinals organizations. Received a Bachelors in Athletic Training from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Duke University in 2014. Is board certified in Orthopedics and a Fellow in Training through the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. Currently owns and operates his performance therapy practice in Phoenix, AZ and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September of 2017.

Dr. Zanis utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.

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4 Responses to Stretching is Overrated: Quick Hits

  1. Jonathan

    On the PAHQ YouTube channel there is (was?) a video of Tex showing some simple stretches to do after a workout. I believe i listened to the podcast and heard a fact about a minimum of 4 min of stretch’s starts the CNS into recovery, and without stretching it can take up to 8 hrs for the CNS to begin its recovery process. Is this all now considered bullshit, or did I totally misunderstand the video and podcast? It could very well be the latter.

  2. Jonathan beat me by 6 hours. Same question.

  3. Jonathan, these are great questions. This all comes down to context. There is nothing wrong with their “stretches” that Tex is showing in his video. If you have time to do them, great! If not, you aren’t missing out on anything. The proposed benefits of the “stretch” routine is to calm down the nervous system. However, the stretch itself is not the dependent variable here. The effect on cooling down the CNS is achieved through the breath. The breath is the king of the brain and the brain is the king of the nervous system. In reality, any kind of general movement, taking your body through full ranges of motion with good diaphragmatic breathing will engage the parasympathetic nervous system and improve heart rate variability and vagal tone, which have both been found to be variables that help you recover more efficiently and effectively from the stress of life or strenuous exercise. You can look up the work of Dr. Stephen Porges on polyvagal theory for more detailed information. There are also about 300 articles in the literature on HRV and vagal tone. Anecdotally, it is more optimal for you to work on limiting factors in your cool down (can look similar to your warm up with dynamic movement prep ) with diaphragmatic breathing techniques like box breathing rather than sitting in long stretches that seem to not have any conclusive benefit for athletic performance or injury prevention. Whereas, improving movement patterns, posture, and position, do have a more conclusive benefit for the aforementioned attributes.

  4. Jonathan

    Awesome response, thank you for the insight.

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