EVERYTHING You Know About Stretching Is Wrong
Quite a stretch: Stretching myths debunked!
There are lots of reasons people stretch: because it’s part of your pre-workout warmup, because it feels good, and because we believe that it prevents and helps fix athletic injuries. But most of what we think we know about stretching, and what we use it for, is based on wishful thinking and outdated science.
There’s a ton of old-school tradition surrounding pre and post-workout stretching, but the research doesn’t actually back up the assumptions that most people make. In fact, in many cases, stretching often does the opposite of what it’s being used to accomplish.
Stretching before exercising doesn’t prevent injuries. It also doesn’t cure post-workout muscle soreness – in fact, aggressive stretching can actually cause more muscle soreness if you’re suffering from DOMS. And warmup stretches, instead of getting you ready to work out, can actually make you weaker. Here’s the truth behind some of these more persistent stretching myths.
Stretching doesn’t prevent injuries
A 2010 study from USA Track and Field was the result of a fairly huge undertaking, splitting up 1,400 runners into stretch and no-stretch groups for 3 months. The stretchers had to hold basic poses for 20 seconds that targeted their calf, hamstring and quadriceps muscles before every run; the non-stretchers did nothing before their runs. The results?
About 16% of the group that didn’t stretch were hobbled badly enough to miss training for at least a week during the length of the study (the researchers’ definition of a running injury), while about 16% of the group that did stretch were also laid up for at least a week during the study period.
The percentages, in other words, were virtually identical. Static stretching had proved to be a wash in terms of protecting against injury. It neither prevented nor induced injury when compared with not stretching before running.
Stretching doesn’t cure ‘DOMS’ muscle soreness
At Ascent, athletes ask me every day if I have a good stretch for a specific muscle that’s sore from a tough workout they did the day or two prior. It makes sense: stretching feels like you’re doing something to help. But stretching won’t provide any lasting relief for DOMS – or delayed onset muscle soreness – and it won’t prevent it, either.
What does work? Clinical studies have shown that self-massage using a foam roller or Hypervolt vibrating massage tool are both effective for the relief of DOMS. Massage has been shown to be most effective for strength recovery, while vibration therapy has been shown to be most effective for pain reduction. Simple dietary changes – such as adding caffeine, taurine, BCAA’s and omega-3 supplements to your daily regimen – have also been shown to help reduce DOMS.
But aggressive stretching itself can actually damage muscle fibers just as much as weightlifting – you’re just creating micro-tears by stretching them instead of by contracting them. It’s the same with muscle strains; the pulled muscle needs to knit back together, and stretching sabotages the process.
Stretching Reduces Strength Short-Term
If you use aggressive static stretching as part of your pre-workout warmup, when it comes time to lift that weight or make that sudden cutting move, you’ll actually be weaker than if you didn’t stretch at all. Studies suggest the effect can last as long as 30 minutes.
A huge 2011 review by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise of all the available research found “overwhelming evidence that stretch durations of 30-45 seconds imparted no significant effect” and even some evidence of harm on athletic performance.
Yet, a 2013 study from Strength & Conditioning Research showed that, all else being equal, people who stretch routinely will end up stronger than those who don’t. They’re decreasing their strength temporarily, but building it long-term.
Why? Probably because of the muscle damage we discussed earlier. If weightlifting and stretching can both cause muscle fiber damage, they should both cause the muscles to repair themselves stronger than they started. Stretching does cause hypertrophy (muscle growth). This seems to explain why people who stretch end up stronger over time, and it would suggest that that time is better spent actually exercising.
Enter dynamic stretching
That’s why “dynamic stretching” and “mobility work” are now preferred. Instead of working on a single stretch for 30 seconds or more, you take your body through an exaggerated version of the normal range of motion. Dynamic stretches are meant to be functional and mimic the movement of the activity or sport you’re about to perform. Maybe this means jogging with high knees and butt kicks, or doing jump squats or lunges.
But it’s a stretch (pun intended) to even call this stretching; the idea is to get blood flowing, physically warm up your muscle tissue, and kick your cells’ calorie-burning machinery into gear.
A sample dynamic stretching routine can include some of the moves below. Just remember that you’ll want to match the dynamic stretches you do during your warmup to the ones that most closely resemble the exercises you are about to perform.
For example, if you’re warming up before a basketball game, do some jump squats, jumping jacks, and arm circles to get your legs, core and shoulders loose. If you’re getting ready for a run, try a few walking lunge twists, high knees and butt kicks.
Lower Body Dynamic Stretches
1. Hamstring Scoops – 10 steps
Begin with one leg straight in front of you with the heel touching the ground and toe turned upwards. Bend down scooping your hands along your body and following the length of your leg until you return to standing. Repeat this movement pattern for 10 steps, alternating sides.
2. Leg Kicks with Opposite Arm Reach – 10 steps
Kick one leg out straight in front of you while reaching for the toes with the opposite hand. Walk alternating which leg kicks forward, incorporating the opposite arm reach with every step. Repeat for at least 10 steps.
3. High Knees – 1 minute
Begin by jumping in place. Lift one knee up to hip height before rapidly switching to the other side like you are marching in place. Quickly alternate from side to side for at least one minute.
4. Jump Squats – 30 to 60 seconds
Begin in a standing position. Squat down toward the ground before explosively jumping into the air, lifting both knees to your chest. When you return to the ground, perform another small squat before jumping again. Repeat this movement pattern for 30 to 60 seconds.
5. Butt Kicks – 10 steps
Walk quickly, performing small hops as you alternate quickly bending one knee until your foot makes contact with your buttock. Repeat alternating sides with each step for at least 10 steps. You can stay in place or travel.
Upper Body Dynamic Stretches
1. Walking Lunge Twist – 10 steps
Begin standing with arms clasped behind your head. Step forward into a forward lunge, going down to one knee. When in the lunge position, rotate your upper body towards the side of the knee that is in front. Perform 10 of these, alternating sides and direction of the twist with each step.
2. Arm Circles – 30 to 60 seconds
Bring your arms out to the side like you’re making the letter “T” then make circles with your arms. Begin with small circles in one direction, then increase the size of the circles. Repeat in the opposite direction. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds.
3. Plank Walk Out – 10 reps
Start in a standing position. Drop down to your hands and walk the arms out into a plank position. You can perform a push up or simply walk yourself back to standing after the plank. Repeat for 10 reps.
4. Jumping Jacks – 30 reps
Start in the standing position with arms by your sides. Bring arms over head as you jump and straddle. Return arms to starting position. Repeat at least 30 times.
5. Arm Hugs – 30 seconds
Begin standing. Quickly alternate between hugging your chest and reaching your arms out to the sides, opening and closing your chest. Repeat for 30 seconds.
A better prescription for stretching
1. If you need strength in a workout (because you’re lifting weights, or sprinting, or playing a sport that requires sudden bursts of power), skip the static stretches beforehand. Dynamic stretches – like those above – are a much better option.
3. If you’re sore or have a pulled muscle, stop stretching, or keep it super gentle. A little light cardio, such as walking, will bring a similar temporary relief from soreness without further damaging muscle fibers.
4. If you simply want to improve your flexibility, static stretching can definitely help, but incorporate multiple types of mobility work – foam rolling, vibration massage, and dynamic stretching – instead of just static stretching.
Sure, you might be the only one in gym who doesn’t stretch before working out, and prefers to foam roll or use a Hypervolt on a sore muscle rather than stretch it out, but your muscles will thank you for it.
Stretching to fix postural muscle imbalances
So far, we’ve really only been discussing stretching as it relates to pre and post-workout routines. But if you’ve been prescribed specific stretches to help with a musculoskeletal condition or to correct postural imbalances, do them.
New research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that targeted stretching can be as safe and effective as physical therapy – and a great addition to your chiropractic treatment plan – for easing back pain. In fact, after 3 months of daily stretching specifically targeted for relieving back pain, the researchers found participants still taking painkillers for their back pain had dropped by 50%.
Soreness is different than pain!
Muscle soreness is different than pain. If you’re struggling with back or joint pain – even if you’ve already being treated by your primary care physician – chiropractic care is essential. Research says it gets better results than just about anything else.
Looking for a Brookfield chiropractor? We’d love to help you get started with chiropractic care. Make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic in Brookfield by calling 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.
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