I am sure that you have heard from a friend or family member that you should include static stretching in your daily routine or use it before/after exercise to improve your overall health and help prevent injuries. Today I am going to debunk exactly what is happening within the body when you stretch and who benefits the most from stretching.
Firstly, what exactly is a static stretch? A static stretch involves bringing a muscle to its most lengthened position and lightly holding that for a certain period of time. The benefits of stretching mostly consist of improving ones range of motion and decreasing their perceived level of muscle stiffness. What is exactly causing this change though? It is commonly understood that when you stretch out a muscle, the muscle fibres then lengthen to facilitate an increased range of motion, however this is not inherently the case.
When a stretch is held for a sustained period of time, your nervous system is slowly getting more comfortable with your body being in that position and will allow you to move that little bit further. While this process is happening, the length of the muscle itself remains the same. It’s the protective mechanisms in place within the nervous system that is just being challenged, thus leading to an increased level of tolerance of the stretch being performed. This increased level of tolerance is only a temporary adaption, with the nervous system wanting to reset itself shortly after. To be able to maintain this new degree of range of motion that has been achieved, stretching needs to be done daily for a minimum of a couple of minutes with each stretch lasting for at least 30 seconds.
Is there a benefit though from having this increased level of flexibility? For the everyday individual and for the majority of athletes there is no profound benefit from stretching as it has not shown to have an impact on muscle soreness, injury prevention or enhance athletic performance. It does however, still have a place for athletes such as dancers and gymnasts who need to be able to achieve and maintain a certain level of flexibility to perform their routines and compete at a high level.
If static stretching is not beneficial to do before a game then what should you do and why do I see so many athletes stretch before a game? The best thing to do prior to playing is to make sure that you aren’t going out cold and that your body is warmed up. This could be done through dynamic stretching which involves bringing the muscle through its full active range of motion repetitively, going for a light jog or doing some warm up drills. The key thing you want to get out of the warm up is to increase muscle temperature. How you achieve this isn’t as important. In relation to why you may come across your favourite athlete stretching before/after a game is primarily down to the individuals pre and post game routine. Studies have shown that stretching can have a positive impact on psychological readiness and increased levels of confidence going into a game. With some athletes also simply feeling better if they do stretch afterwards, despite this not having an impact on their recovery.
Essentially if you enjoy having a stretch after a big game or after a long day at work, then I definitely don’t want to be the one to hold you back. Go ahead and stretch it out as there is no substantial evidence that stretching is going to cause you any harm either.
The main thing that I would like for you to take away from this article today is that stretching is not something that is necessary to perform for general health or for the everyday athlete, as these neural adaptions that occur are temporary and difficult to maintain with no increases in muscle length achieved. If it is however something that is embedded in your routine to keep you mentally sharp or something you simply enjoy doing, then go for it!
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Curry, B.S. et al. (2009) ‘Acute effects of dynamic stretching, static stretching, and light aerobic activity on muscular performance in women’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(6), pp. 1811–1819. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b73c2b.
Freitas, S.R. et al. (2017) ‘Can chronic stretching change the muscle-tendon mechanical properties? A Review’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(3), pp. 794–806. doi:10.1111/sms.12957.
Magnusson, P. and Renström, P. (2006) ‘The European College of Sports Sciences Position statement: The role of stretching exercises in sports’, European Journal of Sport Science, 6(2), pp. 87–91. doi:10.1080/17461390600617865.
Park, H.-K. et al. (2018) ‘The effect of warm-ups with stretching on the isokinetic moments of collegiate men’, Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 14(1), pp. 78–82. doi:10.12965/jer.1835210.605.