To Stretch or not to stretch?

stretchingStretching one of the controversial things in sports and rehabilitation. In the past years stretching has been correlated to flexibility one of the core components of physical fitness. For those who are curious there are flexibility, strength, power, speed endurance, balance, coordination, balance and skill. Stretching is primarily controversial these recent years due to having studies that are either showing that they decrease performance if done before exercise and some that show that it does not change the performance of the person. So the question is should we still stretch or just ask the clients to do something else before exercise? To answer these let us take a look at the core philosophy behind stretching.

So to begin the discussion and to ease everyone into the topic let us first define the term stretching. Stretching according to The anatomy of stretching (2007) by Brad Walker is “ the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen the muscles and associated tissues”. So the basic premise of doing this is so as to lengthen the sarcomere. For those who are unfamiliar or those who forgot what as sarcomere is it is the basic functional unit of a skeletal muscle. Inside the sarcomere unit are the action and myosin who pull themselves closer so as to create muscle contraction. The goal of stretching is to decrease the overlap between the actin and myosin filaments thus elongating connective tissue and muscle fascia. Regular readers of the blog will start to see a problem with this statement. For the ease of discussion I will focus on the philosophy of stretching. Stretching before or after the performance apparently will improve range of motion, increase power, reduce post exercise muscle soreness, reduce fatigue, improve posture, develop body awareness, improve co-ordination, increase energy and improve relaxation and stress relief. As you can see The anatomy of stretching(2007) by Brad Walker enumerated the benefits of stretching. I will be discussing what Brad Walker has discussed per benefit. The first benefit is the improved range of motion. According to the book stretching is able to increase the length of the muscles as such a reduced general muscle tension is achieved and normal range of motion is increased. The second benefit that the book has discussed is the increased power. According to the book the myth that “ if you stretch too much you will lose both joint stability and muscle power, this is the first time that I have even heard of such a myth, is untrue as such by stretching the muscle is able to contract more that might lead to a potential increase in power. The third benefit discussed is the reduction in post exercise muscle soreness as stretching decreases the micro-tears, blood pooling and accumulated waste products. As such stretching as a cool down will produce this benefit. The fourth benefit is the reduced fatigue. The book said that this is due to the reduced effort exerted by the muscles as such stretching before and after exercise is beneficial. The other benefits were just briefly touched by the author. This is the basic philosophy of stretching.

So piecing together what I have learned throughout the years let us take a look at the details of the Philosophy and see if it holds water, or something else as this is a figure of speech. The basic premise of stretching is that it is able to stretch connective tissue and the muscle fascia. The basic problem with this is that while connective tissue is capable of being elongated it needs quite a long time as such unless you are able to stretch the connective tissues and fascia of the muscle for an extremely long amount of time you won’t even be able to cause elongation. If I remember correctly in the past the safest type of stretching is the active type as such unless you are able to hold the stretched position for a prolonged amount of time this won’t cause any tissue changes. As such while achieving elongation is possible it may take a long time as such stretching each and every muscle is quite impractical specially if you are doing one before a quick exercise especially in this time and age where a 5 minute exercise is quite hard to fit in one’s schedule. As for the benefits of stretching specially the range of motion and the increased power studies shows that they show no changes before and after stretching. By taking what I have learned throughout the years there are ways of increasing range of motion and power but it is usually not done though stretching as range of motion is affected by a lot of factors such as co-ordination of the muscles, co contraction and other things. For power while the theory of having more space for the structures to contract seems possible this might not be showing much promise since strength is developed not by lengthening but by the constant injury repair cycle of the system as this increases the either the number or girth of cells depending on the situation. For the reduced exercise muscle soreness a lot of things should be considered since we are talking about the byproducts of exercise and the ability of the body to repair itself. This part is also a bust at least based on the recent studies probably because to be able to expel the byproducts out of the system active contraction of the muscles and lymphatics should be considered and both of these are not directly influenced by stretching. As for the fatigue reduction there is still a lot of things to consider a fatigue is a perceived effect of exercises as such it is hard to put into context and considering that everybody has different responses to the different exercises. It might be hard to place this either as an effect of stretching as well as the various other benefits of the book.

So should you still stretch based on what I have stated no, but if you would want to do it why not it won’t do you any harm and it might be fun to point out that at least 1/3 of healing comes from believing in the activity that might heal you. As one would say if it won’t hurt to try and you feel like it helps you why not as long as you feel no pain when you are doing it.

Disclaimer: This came partly from my memory (i.e: training international and local) as such take everything with a grain of salt.

Reference: Walker.b (2007). Anatomy of Stretching. Chichester, England: Lotus Publishing

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