Stretching Myths Smart People Should Know

Article by Lucas Rockwood

The fitness industry is as conflicted about stretching as it is about carbohydrates. Some people say you should skip it altogether, other trainers will tell you to stretch daily.

Some say it’s pointless, you can’t stretch muscles; others claim you can learn the splits in 10 days. Why all the confusion? There is decades of research and an entire body of work that gives very clear insight into how and when stretching can–and cannot–help. Assuming you want to unlock your hamstrings, loosen up your hips, and free up your spine, let’s start by busting some of the myths about flexibility.

MYTH #1: Stretching can boost your performance

Research shows that deep, passive stretching before a big workout can reduce your power, speed and performance, rather than enhance it.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research looked at people running at a one-mile race pace, so really fast runners. One group performed static stretches before their runs and another group didn’t. Researchers found that the stretching group were significantly slower during the subsequent timed runs.

Why? When you’re running, your body stores energy in the elastic tissues of your muscles and your tendons, so at the bottom of your stride you bounce like a pogo stick and transfer that potential energy into kinetic energy. When you stretch deeply it temporarily reduces the elasticity of those muscles, so there’s less bounce in your stride. Imagine that same pogo stick but at the bottom of the bounce the spring is worn out, so you have to force it with your legs. That’s what happens when you stretch deeply before a run, it takes up more muscular energy making you slower as a result.

So why, when you turn on the TV before a game or an athletics championship, do professional athletes look like they are stretching in their warm-ups? They are stretching, but they are doing warm-up stretches. These short, dynamic exercises are designed to rehearse neuromuscular connections, remove sliding surface adhesions from the night before, and get your blood flowing–not to increase flexibility.

MYTH #2: Stretching prevents injury

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but deep, static stretching before exercise does not protect you from injury–your PE teacher was wrong. Worse still, it can create temporary joint laxity that might actually make you more susceptible to injury for about 1-3 hours.

In a 2015 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine looking at joint laxity, researchers studied two groups of soccer players. One group did static stretching before practice and games, while the other group did not. They found significantly more joint laxity in the knees of the group that was stretching. Why? Because deep stretching destabilizes the knees, potentially making them more susceptible to injuries such as an ACL rupture.

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MYTH #3: Yoga classes are all about flexibility

Yoga classes are an amazing, low impact way to get in shape. The gentle approach makes it suitable for almost every body type and age–but flexibility is just one of many benefits, and in most classes, it’s not the main event. Classes focus firstly on breathing and nervous system, functional strength, balance, and then flexibility. If you practice yoga for years, you’ll surely end up very flexible, but who has years to wait? For real results on a shorter timeline, you need to do yoga practices that focus exclusively on flexibility, like the Science of Stretching.

So, should you stop stretching?

Absolutely not! That’s definitely not the solution. The key is to use stretches appropriately, in the right context – and crucially, at the right time, when they will benefit you the most.

If there are areas of your body that aren’t totally in balance, you feel stiff, you’ve lost basic range of motion and you’re moving in a way that’s sub-optimal and makes you prone to injuries, you need to stretch after exercise, not before. Ideally you should do it right before bed using long hold, passive poses. By doing this you can systematically open your hips, hamstrings, shoulders, spine, any area of your body, so you go to bed loose and limber.

Remember, there is a 1-3 hour period after stretching where your joints have more laxity and you have less power and strength. So, by stretching before bed you can correct your posture over time, increase your range of motion and reduce injury in the long term.

Stretching & Pain

Stretches don’t have to be uncomfortable and shouldn’t be painful. The idea is to ease into a stretch until the point of tension. Hold for a few seconds, breathing throughout, relax and repeat trying to stretch a little further each time.

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