Stretching before versus after physical activity seems to be a hot topic amongst fitness professionals. Some argue that stretching is a complete waste of time. This group claims that it hinders gym performance, especially if it takes place before the activity. On the contrary, other health care experts (including doctors and PT’s) swear by it and consider it a necessary component of any routine. That being said, when bombarded with so many mixed messages, it can be difficult to decipher the truth from the BS. In order to help you make an informed decision, I thought I would simply explain the facts behind stretching. That way, you are able to sift through the research and decide if stretching is right for YOU!
Here is what SCIENCE says about stretching:
When you perform a static stretch, the spindle receptors in muscle tissue detect a change in muscle length. It relays this change back to your Central Nervous System, which in result, allows the muscle to relax.
Exercise is a STRESSOR, in both a good way (eustress) and bad way (distress). Muscles that are shortened (due to physical activity) must lengthen and return to their proper length/ tension relationship. If they are unable to do this, they stay in a contracted state and make the tissue more susceptible to injury (susceptible is the keyword here..correlation does not equal causation)
Stretching helps to calm down the CNS which thus reduces chronically elevated stress levels.
Stretching is a crucial component of any rehab protocol by increasing the range of motion of injured body parts that were once immobilized.
However, here are some other claims that science does not adequately support:
There is insufficient evidence stating that pre-exercise stretching reduces performance. If problems arise from pre-exercise stretching, the culprit probably lies in the amount of time dedicated to the stretching as opposed to the stretching itself**. For example, if you are too exhausted from you stretching warm-up to lift your usual weights during a workout, then your pre-exercise routine should be re-evaluated.
Taking this a step further, certain activities will require more flexibility than others. Keep that in mind when planning a warm-up routine. While a soccer player might need a 15-minute warm-up routine featuring 5 minutes of foam rolling, 5 minutes of static stretching and 5 minutes of dynamic movements, a ballerina will need 15-30 minutes of static and dynamic stretching to increase the flexibility of her muscles and joints.
However, there are inconclusive findings regarding injury prevention, as injury usually occurs from trauma to connective tissue (acute) or from overuse, instability or weakness of a muscle or joint (chronic). This means, all the stretching in the world will not prevent weak muscles from compensating or unstable joints from falling privy to injury.
Furthermore, there is insufficient evidence to support the argument that stretching reduces soreness. While it might promote blood flow to the broken down tissues, it will not completely negate the healing process and make your soreness go away.
**Side note, there might be a correlation with pre-exercise stretching and injury IF the stretch is held in an aggressive way or if performed for too long. For example, If I was to jump into the splits before I try to squat my 1 rep max, I PROBABLY WOULD PULL SOMETHING. Point of this is to JUST BE GENTLE with your stretching and you'll probably be fine :)
I understand this only encompasses some of the current research on stretching. However, my hope is that this analysis DOES provide you with some insight on whether stretching is beneficial for you! If you still need help with your pre-exercise warmup/ cool down routine, feel free to reach out!