Stretching is a fitness staple. For most of us, it's one of the first forms of exercise that we are exposed to. Whether you think of vintage videos and brightly coloured leotards, or you conjure up memories from grade-school gym class, stretching has long been associated with physical fitness; 'touch your toes, and hold for 30 seconds'. But, there's a lot of debate about the merits of stretching. Depending on who you ask, you may hear that ‘stretching kills gains’ or that ‘stretching reduces strength’. Others are convinced that stretching is the key to safe exercise and injury prevention. It turns out that there might be merit to both sides of this argument. There’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in stretching and if you’re not deliberate, you may be doing more harm than good.
What Stretching Doesn’t Do
Prevent Weight Room Injuries
If you watch professional sports, you’ll know that most athletes stretch before hitting the ice, turf, or hardwood. They do this to loosen up their muscles and prevent injury, but the type of injury that they’re trying to prevent is different from the ones that are most commonly experienced in the weight room. Regular stretching will help increase your range of motion and prevent injuries related to over-extension - think groin pulls or torn hamstrings. These usually happen at speed, when muscles are quickly pulled beyond where they're accustomed to moving. This type of movement isn’t common during a slow and controlled weightlifting session. Most weightlifting injuries occur within a normal range of motion, and cannot be prevented by a pre-lift stretch.
Alleviate Muscle Soreness
I know when I’ve got a bad case of DOMS, I’m itching like a dog with fleas to stretch out my sore muscles. But unfortunately, stretching has a very minimal impact on muscle soreness, at least according to a study published by the University of Sydney. They had two groups of athletes perform identical training, where one group engaged in pre and post-workout stretching and the other did not. Across all of their research, they found that stretching had almost no impact on next-day muscle soreness. So if you’re really sore, you’re much better off foam rolling and focusing on getting the proper nutrition for a quick recovery.
It may sound counterintuitive, but stretching before physical activity can actually have a negative impact on athletes’ ability to perform. The Journal of Sports Science examined how static stretching before a race effects sprinters’ performance. They compared the speed of sprinters who stretched before a race with those who did not. It turns out that athletes who did not stretch before their run performed better than their limber counterparts. Similar results have been observed with activities that involve strength, explosiveness, and endurance. If you’re looking to break a personal record on the bench press, it’s probably best to keep stretching out of your pre-lift ritual.
How Stretching Helps
So if stretching is so bad why do so many people do it? Well, just because stretching doesn’t increase strength or prevent weight room injuries, doesn't mean you skip it entirely. Static stretching is a great way to improve mobility and increase your range of motion. In the long run, this will allow you to move more freely and fully engage your muscles during training. Who wouldn’t want to be able to squat lower or get more reach on their overhead triceps extensions?
In addition to better range of motion, post-workout stretching can actually help prime your body for growth and enable gains. Every muscle is your body is surrounded by fascia, which is a connective tissue that hugs your muscles to stabilize and keep them in place. Sometimes this tissue can be so tight that it restricts muscle expansion and prevents growth. It’s almost like wearing a belt that's too tight after a big meal. By engaging in regular stretching, you can expand these connective tissues and allow unrestricted muscle growth.
The Best Way to Stretch
When most people think of stretching, they think about the activity in a traditional sense – where you perform a movement that elongates your muscles (like touching your toes or folding your wrists) and hold for a period of time. Today, however, more athletes are integrating ‘active stretching’ into their routines. ‘Active stretching’ looks more like a warmup and includes things like jumping jacks and leg kicks. Unlike static stretching, active stretching has been shown to increase blood flow, raise body temperate, and reduce restriction in movement.
Instead of touching your toes to limber up before a workout, save the static stretching until you’ve finished with the heavy stuff and you’ve got your protein in your hand. Before you hit the weights, try to engage in some active stretching, and pay extra attention to muscle groups you plan on targeting that day. If you really want to kick it up a notch, you can use weights to supplement your stretching routine. Exercises like stiff-legged deadlifts, overhead tricep extensions, and preacher curls are a great way to build muscle and improve flexibility. I find that exercises like these always leave me feeling particularly sore, so if you’re a DOMS hunter, like myself, these exercises are sure to leave you with all kinds of satisfaction.