To stretch or not to stretch

Southern Suburbs Physiotherapy Centre

Stretching muscles to prevent injury, reduce muscle soreness, or improve performance is one of the most controversial medical topics doing the rounds. Since the publication of a study a few years ago which failed to prove that stretching helped reduce injury, there has been a theory that stretching plays no role at all in the sporting environment. However it is important to understand the research, realise the limitations of many studies, and read between the lines to truly understand the benefits of stretching.

The Research

Stretching has many forms, the most common being Static (where the muscle is still while you stretch it) and dynamic (where the muscle is moving as it stretches). Much of the research has been completed on static stretching, as traditionally this has been the major component of pre event warm ups, as well as being a critical component of rehabilitation. Without going into the intricacies of these studies, the research is showing that there is little evidence to suggest that:

  1. Stretching prevents injury
  2. Stretching should be a major component of a Warm Up
  3. Stretching prevents post exercise soreness.

Whilst all this seems doom and gloom for stretching, it must be taken into context. All of these statements are directed towards stretching only as an injury prevention factor. There are many other factors that must also be taken into account such as strength, general fitness and existing injuries just to name a few. What we do know is that static stretching in a warm up does not play much of a role in preventing injuries, and more time in the warm up should be devoted to dynamic stretching and game related activities at a sub maximal level. This is why you see AFL footballers these days spend a good 20-30 minutes out on the ground before a game, dynamically warming up, as opposed to sitting in the rooms doing static stretches. It is important to keep in mind that stretching may well play a role on specific occasions, such as during growth spurts, for a true flexibility problem (when one side of the body is tighter than the other) and during rehabilitation following muscular injuries.

There are also many other factors to be considered when stretching, such as strengthening and stretching often go hand in hand – so if you specifically need to stretch a muscle due to tightness, there is a fair probably that you also need to strengthen the opposite muscle group to effectively improve the area. Another interesting thought is that many younger people we see (particularly younger females) tend to be hypermobile, or loose jointed, and the last thing we need to be doing in these type of athletes is improving their flexibility more!

Even more potentially concerning for some athletes is a study that shows that stretching may actually reduce strength for up to one hour after stretching. This becomes really important for people in explosive types of sports, and may help explain why athletes can do heaps of stretching and warm up and then tear a muscle in the first few minutes of activity. Along these lines, some studies are showing that warm ups with no static stretching component may actually improve exercise performance and reduce injury. There are limitations to nearly every study in this field, so whilst we can’t take these outcomes as absolute gospel, there is certainly the weight of evidence that stretching does not play the role we once thought it did.

Our Advice

So what can we take from all this latest research? Our general advice to athletes is:

  • If injury prevention is the primary objective, athletes should limit stretching before exercise and increase the warm up time.
  • Dynamic stretching and warming up has a far more beneficial role in injury prevention than static stretching.
  • If you are going to use stretching as part of a warm up, stretching is best performed after muscles are warm, towards the end of the warm up period.
  • Stretches held for a period of 30 seconds have been shown to be more beneficial than 15 second holds, but no less beneficial than 60 second holds – in other words, 30 seconds is optimal.
  • Beware of stretching heavily immediately before an activity involving speed and power.
  • Aerobic fitness is probably more important to injury prevention than flexibility issues, so stay fit during your injury time if possible.
  • Static stretching does play an important role in specific cases such as growth periods and during injury rehabilitation.

No doubt more research will be conducted in this area, and we will keep you informed, but please ask your SSPC physiotherapist if you have any queries about stretching

 Southern Suburbs Physiotherapy Centre