Those were the words spoken by one of my clients the other day, just before starting her workout. She said it as an observation, but I took it as a compliment.
Stretching is widely promoted. All of my coaches, from youth baseball to collegiate volleyball, made stretching a mandatory part of warm-ups. I see many people perform stretches at the park before softball games and jogs. In massage school, instructors promoted stretching as a tool to add to all modalities. It can feel good too. However, stretching isn't achieving what we are hoping for...not even close.
Why not? Lets first go over why people do stretch:
- Reduce possible soreness experienced from activity/exercise.
- Prevent injury.
- Increase muscle flexibility/joint range of motion.
- Stretching does not reduce post-activity soreness.
- Stretching does not reduce the risk of injury (read here, here, and here).
- Stretching reduces maximal strength output when performed before an activity.
- Stretching can increase laxity in connective joint tissues, which is a precursor for more serious injuries.
Let me explain in more detail. Many people use stretching as part of a preparation/injury prevention routine before activities. The objective of a warm-up is to increase blood flow to various areas of the body. Contraction of muscle fibers brings blood flow to that area. Stretching a muscle, however, does not bring blood flow to that area.
In regards to power, a short physiological explanation is needed. Inside each muscle cell are sarcomeres (pictured below). When muscle contraction occurs, two structures, actin (blue) and myosin (pink), grab onto each other. Basically, the pink structures pull the blue structures into the "H Zone", thereby decreasing the overall width of the structure (in regards to the picture). The connections that form between the pink and blue structures are called cross bridges. More cross bridges means more strength/higher force and more muscle involved. However, the pink and blue structures can become too far apart from each other for cross bridges to occur. Stretching can cause this scenario. In essence, stretching before strength training or an athletic competition means reducing strength, endurance, and the percentage of muscle involved.
Apparent gains experienced through stretching come as a result of increased tendon and ligament laxity and greater stretch tolerance. Stretching tendons and ligaments from their original length can cause tears or at least become a precursor for a tear. Ligament tears are especially serious because they have minimal blood supply. Ask anyone who has ever torn a knee or shoulder ligament about the months they spent rehabbing and recovering after surgery.
Here are my recommendations for achieving your stretching-related goals:
1. If you are very sore the day after an activity, do the activity again at a similar intensity. If you're thighs are sore from sprinting around during an athletic competition the day before, go out and run more sprints. If your pecs are sore from pushups, do more pushups. The worst thing to do with soreness is nothing! It will likely escalate with inactivity.
2. Warm-up for your activity/sport through similar movements you will perform during it. Start light, then build up to the necessary intensity level. Do this over a span of several minutes. If you are hiking up a mountain, start with walking on flat ground. Then increase to walking up steps one at a time, and finish with walking up multiple steps at a time.
3.. To improve your joint range of motion, strength train with a significant resistance through a full, pain-free range of motion. Strength training has been proven through research to increase flexibility, in addition to all of the other great benefits it provides.