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Why do we Stretch?


Toe touches, sit and reach, and wall stretches are typical static stretches. Yet, these stretches do more than simply stretch muscle, especially when used with poor form.

I’ve worked with people of all skill levels, professional athletes, weekend warriors, stay at home moms, and age-group athletes and none of these groups knows how or why to stretch. In fact, no one knows the exact science of stretching as the basics are still misunderstood. Despite popular belief, the exact science of static stretching is not well established, with many questions remaining, including:

  1. What is lengthening during stretching?
  2. What is optimal duration?
  3. When should stretching be performed are still unsure?
  4. Does stretching prevent injuries?
  5. Does stretching improve soreness?

Luckily proper biomechanics are clear, especially pertaining back position. Unfortunately, many of the “common” stretches stress and strain the back, although many believe stretching helps the back.

The low back rarely requires more range of motion, as a excessive low back range of motion correlates with back injury (Fujiwara 2000).

It appears (Hoge 2011) static stretching improves stretch tolerance, while not affecting muscle or tendon length. Hoge and colleagues found: after 3 sets of 30 second bouts of static calf stretching, only women showed an increase in ROM and men showed no improvement.

The improvement occurred in the musculotendinous junction or muscle, once again, perhaps from the stretch tolerance.

This study provides more evidence of short-term stretching (~30 seconds) for improvements in range of motion. In these studies 30 seconds appears suffice for improving stretch tolerance. It is clear, range of motion improves after an acute bout of stretching.

Other studies have compared static and PNF (contract-relax) stretching. These studies have found contract-relax improves stretch tolerance more than static stretching.

The literature supports not using static stretching directly before competition as it decreases power and strength (Simic 2012). These studies suggest performing dynamic stretching and movements to enhance warm-up before exercise. However, static stretching following exercise appears to improve strength over the long-term (at least in untrained patrons) (Kokkonen 2010). Static stretching also aids in nervous system recovery (and potentially blood pressure). This is clearer in less flexible patrons. Physiologically, the rest and digest nervous system (parasympathetic) increases with static stretching (Farinatii 2011).

Despite these improvements, static stretching doesn’t live up to all the hype. Some feel static stretching prevents injuries, but this has not been verified (Amako 2003).

Another area for static stretching is muscle soreness. Henschke in 2011 found no correlation with static stretching in muscle soreness.

To close, there are many myths surrounding static stretching. Despite the many myths, there are some benefits to performing static stretching after exercise, especially in inflexible people. Unfortunately, the research is lacking for all the benefits of static stretching suggestions.

Keep this information in mind, and use the proper biomechnics when stretching. At COR, we use static stretching sparingly for recovery and inflexibility improvement. This is why we conclude our boot camps with a simple stretching routine. This science and research is behind all the training performed at COR, especially our boot camps. Join today and see what COR and scientific literature can do for you!

Written by Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS