To Stretch Or Not To Stretch

Let's discuss another one of those topics that seem to linger around in fitness sector. Stretching.
Is it good? Is it bad?
Should I do it before I exercise? Should I do it after I exercise?
How long should I do it for?

This topic appears in tons of fitness related magazines, blogs, and articles. Some of them have good information but some of them suck.

Stretching does the body good in several ways but I want to clear up the biggest myth first.

Stretching will not improve your performance. Yes, you spent some time bending over and touching your toes, but that will not translate into you squatting more weight. You will often see a man stretch his chest out before he bench presses. That does not help power output. I'm sorry.

The majority of articles mention that stretching decreases the chance of injury. NOT TRUE. Being able to perform a movement through its entire range of motion is what decreases the chance of injury. Performing certain stretches can aide in that regard. But stretching isn't the only vehicle to get us there. Remembering that there are more than one way to chop a tree down is key.

When the goal is to embark on improving flexibility then a couple things need to be considered. Stretching is best performed after a good warm-up. This helps to reduce joint viscosity. Which is a fancy way of saying prepare your muscles and connective tissue before you start tugging on them. Some light aerobic activity performed for 5 or 10 minutes will accomplish this task well. Take home message: Don’t stretch a cold muscle if improving flexibility is the end goal.

Stretching is great for helping you to be more aware of posture, and stress relief. It can also be a good tool for helping the body get in and out of basic human shapes.

I personally love stretching for the mental aspect. It allows you to have 2 to 5 minutes of time where you can mentally prepare yourself for exercise. I find that to be beneficial for clients, and also in my own practice.

What does the research say?

There is some evidence showing that stretching before a workout isn't the best idea. It can have a negative benefit on performance output. Especially in high performance activities like low rep resistance training, sprinting, jumping or any other high output type exercise/activity. Let's take a T-shirt for example. If you have a fresh T-shirt out of the bag. It is nice and tight when you put it on. But if you start tugging on the sleeves, and stretching the bottom of it then it won't be so tight will it? Your muscles act the same way. If you are stretching a single muscle for an extended amount of time and asking that muscle to be nice and tight during maximum output, good luck.

In general, standard stretching protocols where you are holding a stretch for 10 - 30 seconds are safe. It actually shows great benefit to the individual that practices moderate to high repetition resistance training. It also has great carryover for the person performing sub maximal cardiovascular exercise.

Performing basic fundamental stretches are helpful because:
1. It will help your body realize that basic human functions are safe.
2. It will help give you access to moving through a full range of motion.
3. It could help you become more aware of some posture flaws.
4. It could be a great tool for stress relief since muscle tightness is often associated with stress.

Here is another example of a fitness related topic that isn't completely black and white. With most fitness topics like this the truth lies somewhere in the middle.