The Physical Therapist’s Guide to Stretching
We know we need to stretch. People have been telling us so our entire lives. It’s like the wisdom of the ages, passed down from your middle school P.E. teacher to that guy at the gym who keeps offering to critique your deadlift.
But while stretching has its proven benefits, those benefits don’t always align with the reasons people give for doing it. Many common beliefs regarding stretching have been countered by scientific studies, while the evidence for others is inconclusive. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch, though. You just might want to reevaluate your reasons for doing so.
Possible Benefits of Stretching
- Injury Prevention — This is probably the biggest misconception. Studies show that stretching really isn’t that important for preventing injury. While stretching can increase flexibility, flexibility isn’t as valuable as once thought when it comes to injury prevention—especially when most injuries come from overuse. A proper warmup before exercise has been shown to help, but stretching—while often performed during a warmup—is not enough of a warmup on its own.
- Pain Relief — Here the verdict is mixed. On the con side, we know that stretching does nothing for preventing exercise-related muscle soreness. However on the pro side, stretching is a valuable component of a Physical Therapist’s toolkit when it comes to treatment of injury and relief of injury-related pain. Whether stretches are performed in-office or your PT suggests physical therapy equipment for performing stretching exercises on your own at home, your PT’s stretching recommendations can be a great resource for pain relief.
- Increased Flexibility / Range of Motion — Stretching has been shown to be effective for increasing flexibility and range of motion. This is important when it comes to injury recovery and getting back to your normal, functional self. However, the benefits of being super-flexible outside the gymnastics ring or certain other sports are questionable. Since flexibility has so little to do with injury prevention, how important is it to you to perform that backbend at your age?
- Enhanced Performance — Again we’re in mixed territory. Long duration stretches just before exercise has actually been shown to compromise maximal muscle performance when it comes to exercises like sprinting. However, increased flexibility from stretching is important if your sport is something like gymnastics or martial arts. Whether stretching helps performance really depends on your activity.
- Stretching Feels Good — There’s no denying this one. There’s nothing like a good stretch, and this alone is reason enough to do it. Even if the physical importance of stretching can sometimes be questioned, you can’t overstate the value to your mental state of taking some time to connect with your body and stretch out those tight muscles.
- Improved Circulation — As a bonus to stretching that isn’t talked about as much as other supposed benefits, at least one study has linked stretching to improvements in heart rate variability. Hooray for stretching!
Is it Best to Stretch Before or After Exercise?
Pre-exercise, your best bet is to warm up your muscles, and static stretches really don’t contribute to that. Gentle performance of the movements associated with your planned exercise is the way to go: a slow jog to ease into your run, for example, or light calisthenics and dynamic stretches, such as these:
After exercise, when your muscles are warmed up, is the best time for prolonged static stretches. To get the most benefit, to maintain “progress” with your stretches, and to feel at your best while stretching, it’s good to stretch at least five days a week.