Everything You've Been Told About Stretching Is Wrong
Everything you know about stretching, you probably learned from your elementary school PE teacher, or possibly your high school basketball coach. Either way, it’s almost definitely wrong.
Coaches and teachers from 20+ years ago didn’t have a whole lot of training on stretching. They picked up most of their knowledge from their own elementary school PE teachers and high school coaches... who also probably didn’t have a whole lot of training on stretching. And the cycle goes on.
If you’re sitting there thinking, "It's stretching... how complicated can it be?", you're partly right. But you need to know what the research says and how to actually reap stretching’s benefits, mostly by forgetting these commonly held myths too many people believe.
Stretching before exercise prevents injuries
No, your pulled hamstring during softball practice is almost definitely not because you failed to stretch. At least in the sense of old-school static stretching where you hold a stretch for 30-60 seconds.
Before you lose your shit and tell me all the reasons I’m wrong and how you know you got XYZ injury because you didn’t stretch, let me point you to the research. First, there’s the 2004 meta-analysis that found stretching had no significant role in injury prevention during athletic activities. Then there’s the 2013 meta-analysis reviewing even more studies that basically proved the same thing.
The problem is, people confuse warming up and stretching. And more than that, they confuse static stretching and dynamic stretching.
Warming up -- which involves raising your internal core temperature and taking your body through dynamic, full range of motion movements -- definitely helps prevent injury. Some of these movements (think lunges, skipping, air squats, and arm circles) are actually considered dynamic stretches. When performed as part of a total warmup routine, they’re incredibly beneficial, and can, in fact, help prevent injury.
But standing still and touching your toes like in high school gym class? Not so much.
Stretching after exercise reduces soreness
Look, I’m not knocking a good, post-workout stretch. In fact, stretching after a workout, when your muscles are warm and limber, is a great time to take yourself through a stretching routine to maintain, or even improve, your flexibility. But if you’re relying on your stretching routine to help reduce the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that typically rears its ugly head 24 to 48 hours post-workout, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In fact, static stretching post-workout not only does nothing to reduce muscle soreness, but it may actually lead to muscle soreness, if you hold a stretch for long periods of time.
If you want to actually reduce DOMS post-workout, try foam rolling, massage, or cold water therapy.
Static stretching is the best method
That good ol’ stretching routine you learned in elementary school does have its place, but it’s not the only way to reap the benefits of stretching.
As I mentioned above, dynamic stretching -- exercises that take your joints through a full range of motion as part of a warmup routine -- is one of the best ways to enjoy a good stretch. The key here is that you’re not trying to push yourself past your natural range of motion. Rather, you’re trying to work within your range of motion to increase blood flow to your working muscles and improve coordinated movement. Not only can this style of active stretching help prevent injuries, but a pre-workout dynamic stretching routine can improve overall athletic performance -- power, agility and strength -- when compared to static stretching.
Don’t ditch those static stretches altogether. They're great for improving flexibility, particularly if you’re involved in activities that require it, like dance, gymnastics, or weird sex games. Just remember to save static stretching for after you’re sufficiently warmed up.
If you’re feeling "tight," you need to stretch
Well, maybe. Sometimes. In the right conditions.
The thing is, "tightness" can’t always be resolved with a simple stretch. Jeff Richter, a certified athletic trainer at St. Vincent Sports Performance, explains it like this: "Protective tension may be occurring in the muscles if the body has poor postural positions."
In other words, if you’re constantly placing your body in a whacked-out position (for instance, always crossing one leg over the other, always placing more weight on one foot than the other, or always sitting down), your body compensates for those imbalances, tightening opposing muscles to prevent pain or injuries. Unfortunately, this can lead to myofascial adhesions to the fascia that can’t be resolved with simple stretching.
Richter suggests foam rolling and stability training as more suitable ways to address these problems, saying, "Releasing trigger points and restoring good tissue quality through manual therapy and creating stable and efficient movement patterns are extremely important to pair with good postural positions."
You should stretch beyond your natural range of motion
In the world of "no pain, no gain," with ghost voices of past coaches whispering, "Push yourself, reach a little farther," in your ear, it’s not surprising that you tend to stretch past your breaking point when reaching for your toes.
It’s time to stop.
Andrea Gilats, a yoga instructor and author of Restoring Flexibility: A Gentle Yoga-Based Practice to Increase Mobility at Any Age, says, "A safe, beneficial stretch invites you to hold near or at the limit of your current range of motion for a particular joint." As you calmly breathe, gradually deepen your stretch by relaxing into it as you exhale.
The reality is, it’s completely possible to overstretch, which can lead to muscle strains and other injuries. By stretching within your range of motion, you protect your muscles, tendons and ligaments while gradually increasing your flexibility.
Foam rolling can replace stretching
I know I’ve just told you (several times) to pick up a foam roller to help relieve tightness and alleviate muscle soreness, but I hate to break it to you, this is not going to be a replacement for stretching, which seems to be a rising trend.
Stretching does just what it says it’ll do: It stretches your muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. It helps maintain and improve flexibility, which is a foundational component of fitness.
Foam rolling is basically self massage. It’s fabulous. I love my foam roller more than I care to admit, but its function is different from stretching. You need to stretch for flexibility benefits and foam roll to work out the kinks. They’re different, and you’ll benefit differently from them both.
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Laura Williams is an exercise physiologist and fitness writer who is, at long last, starting to prioritize stretching through a thrice-weekly post-workout yoga routine. She feels a million times better than she used to. Do you prioritize stretching? Share on Twitter @girlsgonesporty.