The Great Stretching Debate

By Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN on May 10, 2016 , categorized in Endurance, Strength + Conditioning

great stretching debate

“To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question.”

Of the incredible number of confusing topics in the world of fitness, stretching is absolutely in the top ten. Like so many other hotly debated exercise subjects, it seems we are constantly bombarded with articles supporting both sides of the argument. Yes, you should stretch. No you shouldn’t. Completely contradictory conclusions that lead you to ask, “Well, which is it?”

While there are numerous types of stretching modalities, you are likely most familiar with what is known as static stretching. It’s been around for decades, your parents and grandparents did it, and you probably did it in gym class and during sports from a young age. It simply entails holding a position like touching your toes (to target the hamstrings), or pulling up on a foot while standing (to stretch the front of your thighs). The static form is the one that is the most hotly debated when it comes to stretching.

Being the exercise science geek that I am, I could happily dive deep into the specific studies on static stretching, discussing things like sample size, research methods and statistical significance. But if I did, your eyes would almost immediately glaze over and you would quickly abandon the article and start checking your Facebook status or reading something else. So I won’t, and truthfully there is no need. The debate on stretching can be clarified by looking at a few simple real-world facts:

THERE ARE FIVE COMPONENTS OF FITNESS

In the world of exercise science there are five specific components widely agreed upon that together can support fitness: Muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, body composition and, yes, flexibility. Flexibility, the ability of your body to move through its optimal range of motion, is thus an important component of our physical health. One of the primary ways that you can maintain your flexibility is through stretching.

INACTIVITY LEADS TO TIGHT MUSCLES 1Berg HE, Eiken O, Miklavcic L, Mekjavic IB.(2007). Hip, thigh and calf muscle atrophy and bone loss after 5-week bedrest inactivity. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2007 Feb;99(3):283-9. Epub 2006 Dec 22.2Bloomfield SA. (1997). Changes in musculoskeletal structure and function with prolonged bed rest. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Feb;29(2):197-2063http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/60/1478/why-do-muscles-tighten-up/

Thanks in large part to the advances in technology, most of us are sitting more and more, and moving less and less. This is not good. Your body was not designed to be still and the more time spent being inactive, the more health problems can arise. Another negative side effect of increased time spent sitting is tight muscles. Staying in the same position for hours upon end, day in and day out, can lead to shortened and tight hips, lower backs and more. One simple yet effective way to counteract the deleterious effects on our muscles from sitting? Stretching.

ACTIVITY LEADS TO TIGHT MUSCLES 4Page, P. (2012). CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109–119.5http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy-living-article/60/1478/why-do-muscles-tighten-up/

It may seem counterintuitive after discussing how inactivity can lead to tight muscles, but, yes, physical activity can also have the same harmful effects on your flexibility. This is especially true when you engage in the same type of exercise on a regular basis. Running, cycling, swimming – you name it; when you perform the same repetitive movements over and over, utilizing the same muscles in the same way, problems can arise. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to engage in numerous forms of exercise; changing the muscle recruitment patterns helps to naturally prevent flexibility issues from occurring. But, regardless of the type of exercise you engage in, muscles will become tighter and stretching will help maintain your flexibility.

BECOMING INFLEXIBLE IS NOT INEVITABLE 6Bandy WD, Irion JM, Briggler M. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Phys Ther. 1997;77:1090-1096.7William D. Bandy, Jean M. Irion, Michelle Briggler. The Effect of Static Stretch and Dynamic Range of Motion Training on the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscles Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 1998 27:4, 295-300

It is indeed true that your chronological age is just a number. You have some control over the age-related physiological changes that happen as you age, especially those that correspond with the five components of fitness, including the loss of muscle mass (body composition), loss of muscular strength and loss of flexibility. Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass as you age, can be slowed when you engage in strength training and eat adequate amounts of protein.8https://www.dovepress.com/prevention-and-optimal-management-of-sarcopenia-a-review-of-combined-e-peer-reviewed-article-CIA Maintaining your flexibility is one of the five components to maintain as you age, the key being to keep active while practicing a consistent stretching routine.9http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/090112p62.shtml

TIGHTNESS CAN LEAD TO DYSFUNCTION

Your body’s a very smart machine, yet it is only as strong as its weakest link. Your body is designed to function as a well-oiled kinetic chain, which simply means that movement in one part of your body sets off a chain of events that affects other parts of your body as well. When muscles are tight and unable to move in their range of motion, it can upset the natural movement patterns, resulting in discomfort and pain. It is therefore imperative that you maintain flexibility throughout your entire body to help keep your muscles performing well.

So, what kind of stretches should I do, and when?

While the debate concerning stretching will indeed continue, top organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine10Garber, et al., (2011) Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011 – Volume 43 – Issue 7, pp 1334-1359 agree on a few simple guidelines when it comes to static stretching:

  1. Stretch all your major muscle groups
  2. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds
  3. You should feel a gentle stretch, not pain
  4. A great time to perform static stretching is after exercise, when the muscles are warm

True physical fitness comes from balance, from doing a little of everything on a regular basis. This holds true for cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and, yes, stretching.

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tom holland

Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN

Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN is an internationally-recognized exercise physiologist, certified sports nutritionist, freelance writer, and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. He is the author of “Beat the Gym”, “The Marathon Method”, “The 12-Week Triathlete” and “Swim, Bike Run, Eat! The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon”. He has hosted numerous best-selling fitness DVDs including “Supreme 90 Day”, “The Abs Diet Workout” and “Herbalife 24 Fit”. Tom’s workouts and fitness articles have been published in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, SELF, Women’s Health, Oxygen, Men’s Journal, Fitness, Time, The New York Times, Runner’s World, Triathlete, Inside Triathlon and more. Holland is an elite endurance athlete with 23 Ironman triathlon and over 60 marathon and ultramarathon finishes around the world, including races in Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, China, Brazil. South Africa, Germany, Italy, France and Ireland. Tom is a frequent fitness expert on television with appearances on The TODAY Show, Good Morning America, CNN, FOX, QVC & HSN.

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