To Stretch or Not To Stretch

It seems like everyone has something different to say about stretching, all backed up with conflicting studies and research. Some reports say it’s helpful and necessary for injury prevention, while others claim it actually causes an increase in the risk of injury. With all of this contradictory information, it’s hard to know what’s true and what to believe.

Benefits

As with anything else, stretching may potentially be harmful if done incorrectly. However, stretching the right way can be a healthy and beneficial part of a complete exercise routine. Incorporating stretching into your overall fitness habits can work to increase flexibility, decrease incidence pain, and lower risk of injury from overuse. Biomechanically, stretching helps to maintain and increase range of motion, length of muscles and connective tissue, and joint fluid movement and health. It can work to prevent muscle and connective tissues from over tightening, which can lead to difficulty with activities of daily life, pain in muscles and joints, and more.

While it is a great preventative measure, stretching for recovery can also be especially beneficial. A loss of range of motion can be expected to occur after an injury, illness, or other period of immobility. Normal use and mobility would typically keep the muscles and fascia working and active, but a decrease in activity levels can lead to a shortening of these tissues. Deliberately stretching can help lower any damage that may happen as a result of inactivity.

Types of Stretching

Part of the disagreement over the impact of stretchings stems from the fact that there are many different ways to stretch. Most types of stretching, such as static, dynamic, and myofascial release all push the tissues’ limits in a safe and controlled manner. These all put consistent gentle pressure on the body’s tissues, and work to lengthen them in a controlled manner.

Static stretching is the standard stretch, where one body part is stretched and held in place for a period of time. In passive static stretching, the muscle being stretched is relaxed and held in place by something like the floor. In active static stretching, more force is applied gradually to increase the stretch. Dynamic stretching utilizes gentle movement within your range of motion, to similar natural motion of the tissues. This can include slow and controlled swings and twists of the limbs. and massage is another beneficial way to stretch.

While most of these can be very beneficial, ballistic stretching can place undue stress on the body. Unlike dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching usually includes quick bouncing movements at the far end of the range of motion. It’s generally recommended to avoid ballistic stretching, unless you’re an athlete training for a big event. The bouncing motion at the furthest part of the stretch can lead to a higher risk of injury to the muscles and connective tissue around the joints, as it brings the tissue outside of the normal range of motion.

How to Stretch

Other factors such as time, sequence, and frequency, can all affect the effectiveness of stretching. Muscles and connective tissue are incredible complex and powerful things  with the wonderful ability to change in size and form. Body tissue is mostly elastic which means it can stretch and return to its original length, without causing damage or injury. However, it also has a certain level of plasticity, where with enough stretching it can actually remold to a new length also without damage.

Stretching and holding for short periods of time, up to about 15 to 30 seconds, keeps the tissue in the elastic phase. While some studies say that this is sufficient, others say that not much long term benefit is gained from short term stretching, as the tissues quickly revert to their original length. Longer duration stretching, for around 30 to 60 seconds, allows the body’s tissue to reach the plastic or viscous phase. At this stage, the tissues really begin to lengthen and change their structure for the long term. This is a safe way to stretch, slowly bringing it into the plastic stage, and gradually adding more pressure and lengthening the tissues. Damaged tissues after an injury can benefit from stretching for even longer periods of time such as a few minutes. Damaged tissue has a greater composition of tougher collagen fibers which need more time under tension in order to stretch out.

In order to have the most positive impact on recovery and injury prevention, the best time to stretch is when the body is warmed up and fluid. A warm up including static followed by dynamic stretching before starting exercise can help improve elasticity of tissues, as well as increase mobility and decrease risk of injury during activity. Utilizing a cool down period of dynamic followed by static stretching after a workout can also be beneficial. At this point, the muscles are loosened and warmed up, which decreases a risk of injury from a deliberate stretch to the tissues. On a related note, warmer temperatures can also help tissues respond better to stretching, since tissues will be more mobile and ready to move and extend. The morning is also a great time to stretch, which can help prepare the body for the day’s movement ahead.

With all of these tips and information, what’s best for you may not be what’s best for others. It’s important to always pay attention to your body, gathering clues on what works and does not work for you. Stretching should feel good and help you move better. If at any point a stretch feels bad, very uncomfortable, or painful, stop immediately and consult an expert or professional. Enjoy the stretch, the increased mobility, and reap the rewards on your fitness level.