Stretching is (Mostly) a Waste of Time
There’s a widespread belief that stretching is an important component of exercise. Time to reverse your thinking 180 degrees – there’s little research to show that stretching is good for much of anything.
There are four benefits typically proposed for stretching.
- warming up
- preventing soreness or injury
- increasing flexibility
- enhancing performance.
Does stretching help with any of these things?
There are big problems with the concept of stretching as well as the many specific stretching techniques that have been proposed.
- For one thing, stretching doesn’t work at all as part of a warm up. Light, easy movement involving the entire body is the best way to gradually warm up for activity – it uses more muscle groups and generates more internal metabolic heat. Stretching doesn’t do any of that.
- Stretching hasn’t been shown to prevent injury, either.
- Research has also shown that your muscle is actually weaker after stretching it.
- Proper stretching technique is also controversial. Many authorities have suggested specific ways to stretch, but none have been shown to be better than any others.
- Stretching for a few minutes doesn’t even lengthen your muscles. Almost all research shows the opposite – that muscles don’t change length from a stretching program. (The single research study that showed a change in muscle length used a stretching time of 20 minutes – that’s 20 minutes for a single muscle group.)
- Want another opinion? Here are the views of Paul Ingraham, a massage therapist and health journalist in Vancouver. He’s written a whole article on this subject on his website SaveYourself.ca. (The entire site is packed with other gems too.)
In particular, plentiful recent stretching research has shown that it doesn’t (1) warm you up, (2) prevent soreness or injury, or (3) enhance peformance. No other measurable and significant benefit to stretching has ever been proven. Even if it worked, stretching would be inefficient, “proper” technique is controversial at best, and many key muscles are actually biomechanically impossible to stretch — like most of the quadriceps group.
Are there stretching benefits?
Like any movement activity, stretching has an effect on your kinesthetic feedback and movement learning.
That means that each movement experience you have – stretching included – helps your brain tune in to the signals coming in from your joints and muscles and improves your nervous system’s ability to respond to the movement demands placed on it. You develop an ever-wider and better-tuned movement repertory.
In other words, stretches – and other movement experiences that require you to tune in to your body – help you learn.
Sorry – they won’t help you choose the correct answer on your calculus mid-term. But they will help you become more adept and responsive to your environment and more in tune with your inner goings-on. You’ll be healthier and enjoy an improved mood. You’ll avoid problems like musculoskeletal pain, poor posture, arthritis, and de-conditioning.
Okay, what should I do instead of stretching?
- For warming up, move your body lightly but vigorously, engaging as many body parts as you can
- To keep your joints limber, do easy, cyclic movements utilizing the full range of motion of the joints
- For flexibility, challenge yourself to move fully into parts of your movement range that are difficult for you to achieve. You don’t have to hold an extreme endpoint in order to derive the benefit
- To improve your overall body awareness, while you’re exercising or moving (which is all the time) – pay attention. And try a movement class that involves learning new movement patterns: tango, squash, t’ai ch’i, Feldenkrais, or many more.