Sports teachers and personal trainers have been telling you for years – ‘stretch or you’ll pull a muscle!’ So intuitive is the idea that few dispute it. Enter Matt Linsdell, our new Fitness Guru: a self-professed ‘evidence-based’ personal trainer who dares to challenge health orthodoxies. Most of the time he doesn’t bother stretching, and here is why you shouldn’t either…
As you watch the Olympic Games this summer, odds are you won’t see any of the athletes stretching. You might expect to see Usain Bolt standing by the starting blocks before the 100 meter sprint with hands on hips in a semi lunge – but I bet you won’t. Or perhaps you’ll see an athlete with one arm crossed over the other waiting for the opportunity to toss a discus? That’s not going to happen. You won’t even see a swimmer sitting on the ground with feet bottoms pressed against one another before entering the pool.
So why won’t today’s top athletes – who are at the pinnacle of physical fitness – not bother to stretch their muscles? The world’s greatest ever sports men and women should surely be giving themselves every opportunity to perform at their best. And that is precisely why they are NOT stretching.
I’ll cut to the chase and answer a few questions about what stretching can and can’t do:
- Does stretching prevent injury? No
- Does stretching prevent muscle soreness? No
- Does stretching warm you up? No
- Does stretching increase flexibility? YES
Surprised? Now for some more detail…
Myth 1: Stretching prevents injuries
There is no good evidence in the scientific literature to show stretching your muscles protects against getting injured. Quite the contrary. Stretching actually causes small amounts of damage – although this in itself is no big deal. On any given day it’s probably a good thing: muscle damage actually leads to strength gains – providing you allow adequate healing time. But these gains are relatively small and the body’s adaptation peaks fairly quickly. If you are an inactive person and you start going to a normal yoga class (basically stretching) you might notice an increase in strength. But the increase won’t keep progressing and will probably peak after a month or two. So our Olympic contenders, who need to perform at their absolute best, know that any muscle damage is only going to detract from their performance.
Myth 2: Stretching prevents soreness
Muscle soreness is caused by the body’s immune response to muscle damage after sustained training. It’s the way muscles heal and repair. Stretching hasn’t been shown to do anything whatsoever for your immune system – or the rate of muscle recovery. Sure, it might distract you from the pain of sore muscles, but the effect will be fleeting and it certainly doesn’t speed up healing. It just feels nice.
Myth 3: Stretching is a warm up
It’s probably important to define terms here. Whipping your legs around like John Cleese at the ministry of silly walks is not stretching. Some people would call that ‘dynamic stretching’. That’s just semantics. The sort of movements that qualify as an exercise are those that cause repeated muscle contraction. This, in turn, increases the temperature of the muscle and prepares you for your chosen activity. Static stretching will not do this. In the words of the ever poignant Paul Ingraham (from saveyourself.ca):
“You simply cannot ‘warm up’ your muscles by stretching them: that’s like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it.”
Stretching does make you more flexible
Thank goodness there is something positive that stretching can do! Stretching improves flexibility, although the mechanism by which this happens is not clear. Prolonged and intense static stretching has been shown to increase the flexibility of joints. This is thought to be because stretching desensitises you from the discomfort of moving your limbs outside their normal range. The question I pose to you if you are going to stretch is – why? What are you going to do with that extra flexibility? More importantly, is it healthy? No one can answer with any degree of certainty whether hyper-mobile joints equate to a healthier person. And simply being able to kick someone in the face doesn’t really count as a good reason to increase your flexibility! I would however suggest that, before you embark on a mission to increase your flexibility, you make sure you know the reason. If you reach your goal of suppleness, then just make certain you use your skill for good, not evil!
I’m sure you can now see why Olympians won’t be stretching before a big event (and possibly not even after). Some of them do use stretching as an essential part of their training regime, gymnasts being the obvious example. A number of other athletes also stretch to increase flexibility and so improve their performance: hurdlers, swimmers, divers, and the ones with the long skinny swords.
You are welcome to disagree with my view, but please ask yourself, “why?” It’s likely you’ve had someone in authority instruct you to stretch, and then spent years thinking about how beneficial it is. Just keep in mind what I’ve written is not just my opinion: it is based on current scientific knowledge borne out of carefully conducted experiments. I won’t disagree that stretching feels good. So if you like doing it, carry on. Just don’t hurt yourself.
- Herbert, R. D. and Gabriel, M. (2002) Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. BMJ; 325:468
- Shrier, I. (1999) Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine; 9(4):221-7
- Pope, R.P.; Herbert, R.D.; Kirwan, J. D.; Graham, B. J. (2000) A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lowerlimb injury. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 32(2):271-7