Yes, that satisfying “good” pain you get when you stretch a muscle to where it can go no further does feel fantastic, but what benefits are you actually getting out of it? If you’re anything like me, if you’re going to the effort to put 10 minutes of your day aside to stretch you want to know that you’re getting something worthwhile out of it.
Are we stretching just out of “tradition” or because that’s just what people do after/before exercise?
More and more studies are showing static stretching to have no lasting effects on muscle length and can actually decrease muscle power if done before exercise.
This graph from Manoel and Harris-Love’s (2008) study demonstrating static stretching to decrease muscle power compared to those that did not stretch beforehand, in contrast to those that stretched dynamically to significantly increase their power.
Furthermore, this graph from Chtourou et al’s (2013) study showing the effect of static and dynamic stretching on the height of a squat jump versus no stretching at all. This shows the static stretching to have a detrimental effect on jump height in comparison to not stretching at all.
Graph from Jang et al’s (2014) study comparing static stretching with strength training on range of movement over time. This graph demonstrates a change in flexibility straight after the stretch, which then reduces back to baseline within 30 minutes time.
Now if we’re going to go right into the depths of it all, you may be wondering how people are able to go deeper into a stretch after doing it more? Must be the muscle lengthening right? Nope. Studies have shown the properties of the muscle not to change. Instead it is thought that regular static stretching alters sensation and so the person simply becomes more tolerant to the discomfort experienced with the stretch and is then able to go further the following time. The muscle length in the long run stays the same.
How often do you see people stretching as part of their warm-up prior to exercise? I know I used to! What if I told you this could actually be detrimental to whatever they are about to partake in next? Studies have shown stretching done immediately prior to exercise to decrease muscle strength and performance in running and jumping. Imagine doing all of these stretches in the hope that it will increase performance, but what you’re actually doing is the opposite! I’m sure many of us have been there. This acute loss of strength from stretching has been termed “stretch-induced strength loss”.
Now I’m not talking about yoga or pilates when I speak of stretching. These both have an element of strength work incorporated into the stretches which is much more likely to give you results in the long term!
So how do I increase my flexibility?
Don’t lose all hope- using or contracting a muscle prior to range of movement testing has shown increases in range of motion, meaning that dynamic stretching or active stretching where you are using the muscle as you stretch it appear to be the way to go!
However, for those long term results in increased muscle length and flexibility, strength work will be most effective. Muscle tightness occurs when a muscle is not strong enough to deal with the load it is put under. It is the body’s protective mechanism. Therefore, it makes sense that the stronger a muscle is the more load it can deal with and hence the less tight it will get right?
One particularly effective way to do this is to strengthen the muscle while its lengthening! For example eccentric exercises such as nordic curls and reverse nordic curls for hamstring and quad strength are great ways to prevent thigh muscle tightness.