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Do I need to Stretch

There has been a lot of debate and disagreement on the positives and negatives of stretching.

Stretching is done in a lot of different ways such as the common static hold variety, or the more dynamic and ballistic ways, and then there are more fancy methods such as contract and relax, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). However, regardless of what type of stretching you do, they are all believed to help improve flexibility and prepare and warm the body up for sports and other activities and reduce the risk of pulling or tweaking something.

However, a lot of research has shown that stretching doesn’t actually significantly improve performance or reduce the risk of injury for most sports, except for where end of ranges are routinely reached such as in gymnastics or martial arts(ref, ref, ref).

For most other sports such as running, field sports, or gym-based activities stretching doesn’t reduce injury or make you perform better, yet this is where you see most people using it.

there are not many detrimental effects from stretching before a run or a gym session for most of us, so if you want to stretch go ahead, but don’t be fooled into thinking this sufficient to prepare you for sports or activities. The negative effects of stretching before sport such as reduced power and speed shown in some research realistically will not be noticed by most of us and is only of importance to elite athletes at the top of their game.

For those who do stretch regularly before a sport or activity, there may be positive psychological benefits of a familiar routine and positive expectations. So the only time I recommend someone stops stretching is if they are doing it at the expense of something else that would be more beneficial, or if it was becoming an adverse compulsive behaviour, a bit like those who continuously scratch to try and stop an itch.

It also recommended to stop stretching with certain tendinopathies in the early painful stages such as the cross-leg stretch for the glutes in those with glute med tendinopathy, and heel drops for those with insertional Achilles tendons. The reasoning behind this is to reduce the compression forces on the tendon whilst its pathological (ref).

There are a lot of other misunderstandings around the effects of stretching such as many think stretching changes the length and shape of their muscles, with many females thinking stretching will give them long and lean muscles.

like yoga and Pilates classes are fooling millions of women to waste hours and hours stretching in the vain hope expecting it will make them lean and slender when actually stretching will make very little difference to the appearance of their bodies.

Although stretching isn’t a passive activity and forms part of the continuum of exercise and indeed loading, the forces produced in the soft tissues during stretching are often just too low and too short to create any significant adaptive changes. Many studies do show improvements in subjects range of movement after stretching interventions (ref), but very rarely do they show any change to the structure of the tissues, unless you do it really really hard, for really really long times (ref). Simply put most stretching routines have little effect on the physiological structure of our bodies.

Stretching appears to improve a person’s flexibility not by lengthening their muscles but by increasing their tolerance to the stretch sensation by habituating to the protective and painful stretch reflex (ref). If you want to alter a muscles length stretching just won’t do it, instead, you will need to increase the forces applied to the muscle than most stretching can produce.

The easiest way to increase forces into a muscle or any other soft tissue is with an external load, eg resistance training, however many do not associate resistance training with stretching and lengthening muscles, again think resistance training will create big bulky stiff muscles via hypertrophy… and of course it can, given the right parameters.

But if an external load is applied in a certain way then a muscle can strengthen and lengthen via a process called sarcomerogenesis (ref).

Heavy eccentric forces seem to signal sarcomerogenesis via a complex process, if I apply sufficient eccentric forces to a muscle it will adapt via this process, lengthening as well as strengthening… win-win!

So for most things that patients tell me feels stiff or tight I now prescribe strength stretching by giving them a little heavy load and ask them to take it slowly into the range or position they feel tight or restricted. How much load I use is dependant on the person and of course their pain levels, but usually, it is heavy enough so that they cant do the concentric phase of the movement.

I usually ask them to do about 5-8 repetitions taking as long as they can for each rep, at least 10 seconds or longer if possible, and to do 3-5 sets dependant on their pain levels and time. They are warned that they will have some soreness after which may last for a few days and they should wait until this soreness reduces before they do it again.

"Strength stretching" a far more effective and efficient way to restore range of movement or reduce stiffness than static stretching.

This doesn’t mean you don’t use static stretching at all or tell people to stop stretching just that if you’re going to stretch, you might as well get stronger whilst you’re doing it.

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