As a massage therapist and fitness enthusiast, I follow a lot of accounts on social media and listen to podcasts of various professionals in the health/wellness industry including Physical Therapists, chiropractors and various other bodyworkers. For those who don’t, there is a trend lately of discussing the inefficacy of stretching. Some of the claims made include the following:
- Stretching before exercise does not decrease risk of injury, but can actually increase risk
- Stretching does not improve performance and will decrease strength
- Stretching does not make your muscles longer
My main specialty is Fascial Stretch Therapy. In fact, I hold every certification the Stretch to Win Institute currently offers for practitioners. That being said, I do not take offense to any of the claims made, nor do I disagree with any of them. These are all empirically researched claims that hold truth. The problem is that they are not the whole truth.
“Stretching” is a broad term. There are many different categories including, but not limited to, static, dynamic, active, ballistic, PNF, isometric and assisted. Within these categories there are still more variables that can be in play including tempo, intensity, breath work and conditions. As you can now see, not all stretching is created equal. Performing ballistic stretches while holding your breath in the cold is going to have very different effects than static holds performed in a heated room.
A lot of the studies referenced by professionals lately center around “traditional” stretch techniques that look something like a static hold, held for twenty seconds to 2 minutes. Stretching affects structures in the muscles called Golgi Tendon Organelles (GTOs) and Muscle Spindles that are responsible for muscle activation and relaxation. The static stretch is effective at activating the GTOs in a way that greatly relaxes that targeted muscle. Knowing that, let’s revisit the above claims. If you are about to exercise, does complete relaxation sound beneficial? No! Stretching before exercise should prime your muscles for activity, and prepare your nervous system for possible lengths under load your muscles will have to endure. This is why stretching can increase risk, a fully relaxed muscle is not ready for high activity. For the same reason, stretching like this can decrease strength.
Stretches before activity should be limited in duration and intensity. Keeping to a faster pace and mimicking the ranges/movements that might be reached during exercise is how to effectively reduce the chances of injury while maintaining strength. Do not relax the muscle, prepare it.
The last claim is completely true, stretching of any kind is not going to lengthen your muscles. Your muscles are a set length. Likewise, some have attempted to state that you cannot affect the fascia with stretching due to its high tensile strength (over 1000lbs). So why is the therapy I practice called Fascial Stretch Therapy? In FST, we target entire fascial lines, rather than individual muscles, putting the fascia under a full stretch in order to affect its own consistency, decompress the layers of fascia, decompress joints, and positively affect the nervous system. Since we can’t stretch our muscles to be longer, what can be accomplished is the relaxation of hypertonic (tight) muscles. Utilizing breath work with effective stretching techniques can help to unwind tight muscles. Think of stretching as encouraging muscles to relax, not forcing them to be longer. Stretches should be done within a pain-free range. Ever get up from a stretch that you were pushing hard or that you held for a long period of time and hurt or possibly feel tighter? That’s called the stretch-reflex. It’s your body’s way of protecting your tissues from harm: when tissues are stretched too quickly or intensely they will recoil to guard from injury. So instead of trying to make your muscles longer, focus on making them “happier.” When not stretching before exercise, you can know you had a more effective stretching session if you feel tired or relaxed afterward.
In review, stretching can have many different effects depending on its application. Some effects are good, some are bad, and some are good or bad depending on when they are done in relation to activity.
Author: Matthew Erwin, LMT, CFST