Stretching is the boring part of working out, let’s be honest. So it might come as a pleasant surprise to many people that it may not be necessary, sort of.
Now, a lot of people are avid stretchers; they live and die by the conviction that stretching before and after a workout is mandatory. In fact, to these people, stretching is the 11th Commandment that must have broken off the tablet that Moses found: “Thou shalt stretch before and after every workout.”
As with many beliefs in life, sometimes you have to adapt to evidence being put forth by current research. No truer is this idea of progressiveness than in the world of health and fitness.
If you keep fixating on theories and teachings you received when you were younger – or even a couple of years ago – then you are setting yourself up for failure. And, if you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: whatever your knowledge base of anything related to physical health and conditioning, keep updating it.
Now, before you get hot under the collar and start yelling at the screen about flexibility and range of motion and Yoga and all that good stuff, I’m not saying you have to give any of that up either. So, I’ll get down to it.
The Old School of Thought
Remember when you were in school gym class and you felt ridiculous in the shorts and white socks and stooooopid white flat plimsole shoes that gave you blisters? Well, it was considered absolutely essential to stretch before you did your class and then afterwards…no matter what you were doing.
Running round a field? – same stretching routine, arms and all.
Playing football? – same stretching routine
Throwing medicine balls around the room? – same stre……you get the point!
The type of stretching you were doing, where you touched your toes, bent your arm around your head or lay on your back and pulled you knees to your chest – are all called static stretches. And, it is what it sounds like: you stand, sit, or lie still and stretch your muscles. Sometimes, you wouldn’t even be warmed up, though thankfully that sort of behaviour has stopped.
Why It’s The ‘Old’ School of Thought
The truth is, static stretching before training doesn’t come with many benefits. When you stretch muscles, they elongate and then when you return to the neutral position, they are more relaxed. This does very little for your power, strength, speed etc. which are exactly what you are about to call upon for your workout.
If any static stretching is to happen, it’s best to do it after your workout. And even then, it maybe more appropriate – and beneficial – to use a semi dynamic approach as is the case in yoga. Yes, they hold poses but there is quite a lot of movement into the pose, and out of it.
What’s more is yoga isometrically engages other muscle groups in order to keep the pose. It’s basically another form of strength training, and it conditions the muscles to move through a range of motion without necessarily having to always be pulled into it.
Static stretching does not appear to reduce injury (and can cause it actually), and there is no evidence to suggest it improves performance (again, it may hinder it).
HOWEVER: there is a difference between stretch exercises for the average athlete and those prescribed to you by a doctor or qualified therapist. In this case, there is a specific injury/limiter which they are trying to improve for you. Follow their advice always.
The New School of Thought
Dynamic movements are considered to be the new stretching. Nothing too intense at the start but then you would build it up over the warm up period. Of course, it’s better to be warm from the get-go but dynamic warm-ups are becoming the way to do both.
If you are about to squat, the best way to prepare your muscles for that movement is to rehearse that movement. It’s not rocket science, there is no deep secret to this. Squatting without weights and then with warm-up weight sets is the way to gear up the squatting muscles and prevent injury. If nothing else, you are actually beginning your workout when you start the warm-up, instead of taking 10 minutes at the start to yank all your muscles around while they are cold.
Neurons and Muscle Fibres
You brain and muscles are always communicating with one another. This is the reason why rehearsing a movement prepares the whole body for that movement. With increasing load being added to the movement, the brain quickly works out that there is a need to adapt to a bigger load each time, within that range of motion, and the right neurons will fire as a result.
The main thing which got my attention was the idea that static stretching actually tells the brain you are trying to relax the muscle. It’s a bit like pulling on an elastic waistband to try and slacken it off a bit.
To then suddenly introduce weight and move in ranges of motion that are a complete surprise to the body is asking for trouble.
Should I Never Stretch Then?
There’s a time for stretching, and if you feel it helps after a workout then go for it. Then it might help you stay a little more flexible, especially for people who tend to tighten up after a workout because their muscles shorten.
Keep up the yoga and pilates and whatever else you enjoy as well.
However, in the context of resistance training and most type of sport, it seems better to just ‘go through the motions’.