I rarely get my clients to stretch. In fact, I never do unless they have some injury or niggle that could be caused or aggravated by overly tight muscles in a particular area (glutes and hamstrings are often the culprits here).
Nobody has ever mentioned it to me, and yet the topic deserves a little more airtime.
If I’m entirely honest, in my own training I figured stretching was a waste of time unless you had a reason to commit regularly and wholeheartedly. But as I have spoken to clients who practise or teach yoga, and as I engaged in my first ever yoga sessions, and though I know that stretching is only a very small part of yoga, I felt more inadequate than ever in my inflexibility.
So I am on a quest to improve my flexibility. But is it something we should all be striving for?
Most people I know of who stretch will do it not because they want to become more flexible, but because stretching is thought to reduce the risk of injury. But when you think about it, a more flexible joint – that is, a less stable joint – probably increases injury risk. However, a more flexible body as a whole allows all joints and soft tissues to move freely and therefore function more fully, thereby improving the body’s ability to work as a well-tuned unit. When one muscle becomes overly tight, it forces other muscles around it to work harder than they are used to and it can tug harder on a joint than the antagonistic muscle, thereby pulling things out of line and out of synch. Although there is no evidence to support stretching before or after exercise as a means of injury prevention, I would err in favour of keeping everything in check.
Unfortunately, based on my own experience I would surmise that most of us only stretch the muscles that are already flexible. If a muscle is super flexible, stretching it becomes more enjoyable and easier to push further; whereas if that muscle is tight, stretching feels unnecessarily torturous, and we are likely to not push the muscle to a full stretch, or to avoid the stretch altogether.
Can stretching reduce muscle soreness? When your muscles are sore, they feel tight and stiff – so stretching them seems like the perfect antidote. But while stretching may offer some relief whilst the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) rage – and will certainly prevent things overtightening and causing other problems – stretching as a preventative measure has not been shown to be effective. DOMS are typically caused by minute tears in the muscle fibres during unfamiliar or more intensive exercise, so stretching after a tough session won’t go any way to undoing that. However, as increased circulation to the area can help decrease the pain (as the area may swell to deal with the damage to the fibres), a short cool-down including some stretching may be a good way of promoting circulation, by continuing to move the body and helping things realign as opposed to collapsing in a heap on the couch feeling valiant for having exercised.
Of course, your sport may require you to be flexible in one or more areas. Gymnastics and dance are the obvious disciplines that spring to mind, but most sports will require a certain level of flexibility in at least one joint or muscle. The flexibility attained for these sports is not necessarily beneficial: hyperextension is not uncommon in knees and lower backs for gymnasts, and it can plague the health of these joints for years to come. In these cases, of course, there is no question that stretching is beneficial for performance – but not necessarily for overall health.
Other sports and physical activities, on the other hand, may be compromised by stretching and excess flexibility. Namely, sports that require high levels of power (think anything explosive like sprinting or jumping); if you compare your muscles to rubber bands being stretched and then released, you can easily imagine that a stiffer rubber band travels further once released. As above, just because a certain protocol benefits performance in a particular discipline, does not mean it benefits overall health, wellbeing, and structural integrity of the body.
The problem with the studies I have encountered so far, is that they all compare either the types of stretches related to injury rate, or the level of flexibility related the injury rate. None – that I have seen – appear to take into account natural flexibility levels. You and I may have completely different sit-and-reach test scores (where you sit up with your legs out in front of you, reach forward from the waist and try to touch your toes), but you may have just completed a 6-week intensive stretching programme whilst I sat working at the computer for those 6 weeks. As a result, your hamstrings may be very flexible compared to what they are used to, while mine might be a lot tighter than normal. It is the change from our individual “normal” state that would, logically, dictate how likely we are to injure that muscle, rather than the current state. To use the rubber band analogy again, a thick rubber band may be old and used to the point of being much stretchier than usual, but it might still be stiffer than a thin, brand new counterpart. Yet that old, used, stretched out thick band will be more likely to snap under strain than the brand new one.
Likewise, my ridiculously flexible shoulders have caused much alarm around me when, during jiu jitsu sparring, my shoulder has happily allowed itself to be twisted completely out of position without causing me any pain. I have avoided tapping out (i.e., “surrendering” to a painful joint lock or choke, one way to lose a bout) many times from partners simply giving up on the submission, either thinking they had the position wrong or fearing they would snap the limb off. Of course, the lack of stability does mean that one day, the joint simply would have given in, and I’d have ended up with a dislocated shoulder. So is that shoulder flexibility good or bad? You tell me! It all depends on your priorities – to excel in your discipline, or to protect the integrity of your body?
One thing that is certain is that flexibility decreases with age to some extent or another, in various joints: this article cites sa decrease of up to a 50% in spinal extension (bending backwards) in women between the ages of 20 and 84 years. So regular stretching may just help keep the joints oiled, and maybe that’s enough.
So… to stretch or not to stretch? How do you figure out if stretching will benefit you?
Quite simply, if you need to stretch, you are probably already doing it – your sport requires it, or you are rehabilitating an injury – or you know that you should be doing it – your inability to perform certain movements impacts on your comfort and functionality, or you are suffering from aches and niggles that you haven’t had checked out yet. I never have time to stretch until I am struggling with an injury, and then I make the time.
I think the key is staying in touch with our bodies and wellbeing – pain and discomfort should guide us to what needs a bit more attention. No matter what the experts say, we can only go by what feels right in the moment, so let’s start with that.